In his first interview with an English-language media outlet, a German citizen talks about the over 7 years he spent in a Chinese prison. Robert Rother describes the physical and mental torture he endured in prison.
Robert Rother spent seven years and seven months in a Chinese prison, from 2011 to 2018.
During his time at Dongguan Prison in Guangdong Province in southern China, he witnessed torture, abuse, and other forms of mistreatment on a regular basis.
Police used physical and psychological torture to enforce total submissiveness in prison, Rother said.
When an inmate refused to work or broke one of the 38 prison rules, he would be severely punished.
One torture instrument used for that was the infamous Tiger Chair. A prisoner’s arms and legs would be tied to the chair made of iron.
“The chair has some pipes, which have a sharp shape. And if you sit on them for a long time, it’s really painful. Then some people had to sit on these chairs for one week, two weeks, nonstop,” said Rother.
The prisoner’s limbs would eventually go numb and swell up as the pipes pressed deeper into the flesh.
And when the prisoner who was tied to the chair refused to apologize or show guilt, Rother said, police would use electric batons on him. Often with lasting damage.
“So they take the Taser and hold the Taser to your brain. We called it ‘frying the brain,’ or they use a Taser on other spots on your body. That’s kind of common to destroy you if you get tasered on your brain, then that person really becomes, I would say, stupid. They lose their minds. They cannot talk properly anymore. They become very slow in their movements and you see that their brain is damaged.”
Tiger Chairs were displayed publicly for other prisoners as intimidation, he said.
Before inspectors from outside came to the prison, the chairs would simply be stowed away on the roof.
Cameras would also point in a different direction whenever torture was going on.
According to Human Rights Watch, Chinese police regularly use the Tiger Chair on suspects and prisoners, including prisoners of conscience.
Rother himself was put in 20-pound chains and tied to a bed. It was a punishment after he complained about the lack of medical care.
“You cannot sit up. You cannot walk anywhere. You’re just like this,” Rother said.
“The feeling to be in chains it’s just a humiliation. Even especially for things you don’t do, and to not be able to walk straight.”
Luckily, his lawyer somehow heard about it and got him out after half a day. But Rother had to apologize to the guard for “lying” about not receiving care.
He met inmates who had been kept in solitary confinement cells wearing chains for up to two months in over 100-degree temperature without any shower or fresh clothes.
Guards would then also prevent them from sleeping, urinate in their drinking water, and beat them.
Later they would be paraded around the prison with signs on their neck reading something like, “I am ashamed for what I’ve done.”
Amnesty International and other groups have reported on widespread torture at Chinese prisons, detention centers, and labor camps.
Officially, Beijing is a signatory to the UN Convention against Torture.
Rother said the police also employed a range of psychological torture methods. He witnessed many prisoners who literally broke down under the pressure.
“They want to break you. And many people they break; they mentally get a crack and then they give up. Then they become, you see they are somehow dead. They have no more self in them; their self is gone,” Rother said.
Rother said he told the German Consulate in Guangzhou repeatedly about the torture and forced labor he experienced.
When asked by NTD, the German Foreign Ministry said it has not received any “concrete evidence” of torture and forced labor from German citizens who are or were held in a Chinese prison.
There are currently 13 German citizens in prison in China.
Rother’s experiences of forced labor and torture are consistent with accounts of other former Dongguan inmates who talked to the media after their release. For example, New Zealander Danny Cancian, who was released in 2012.
How did Rother manage to handle all the pressure?
For one, being German and having a consulate checking on his wellbeing was something like life insurance in a Chinese prison. Whatever happened, the guards didn’t want to end up with a dead German, he said. The lives of Chinese inmates were regarded as much cheaper.
Over time he learned to cultivate a constructive attitude.
“Start to look inside of yourself and start to tackle your thoughts. What am I thinking? What are my fears? And start to overcome them, confront them, and then you will see how fast your environment is changing and your life will get much better,” Rother said.
He said he witnessed inmates who destroyed themselves by viewing people around them as enemies. He took a different approach.
“I did not see the police officer itself as an enemy. Of course, some were bad. Other police officers were also kind of nice. I have to say, it is the individual. So even there, you have to sometimes, you have to start to forgive. The police officer in front of you is not responsible that you are here. That is a system,” Rother said.
Rother was released in December 2018.
He spent a total of seven years and seven months in prison—an auspicious number, he said.
The adjustment to life back in Germany wasn’t easy. It took him a while to get used to all the impressions and demands of daily life.
The first time he went shopping, he was overwhelmed by all the choices, so he left the store.
Rother spent his first year on an island in Northern Germany, writing a book about his experience.
He said he owed it to his fellow inmates to tell the story of how prisoners in a Chinese prison are being treated.
He said the most important lesson he learned from that time was to “just treat every human being the same way as you want to be treated. And then you will get the response quickly. If you give people respect, they would also give you respect. If you give people problems, they will also give you problems in return,” Rother said.
Today, Rother works as a day trader.
He hopes that his story can help wake people up about the reality of forced labor and torture in Chinese prisons and labor camps, how our relationship with China is contributing to gross violations of human rights, and that we can do something about it.
Watch Part 1 here.
Watch Part 2 here.