Chinese authorities told a jailed British investigator he had problems with his prostate but withheld diagnosis for months to pressure him to confess, he has said after his release.
Peter Humphrey said his health was “held hostage” after he and his wife Yu Yingzeng, a naturalised US citizen, were detained in 2013. They had become embroiled in the fallout from a GlaxoSmithKline corruption scandal that their company was originally hired to investigate.
“Prison officers deliberately obstructed my access to appropriate medical attention, for my prostate and other health problems,” Humphrey told the Guardian, adding that at times during his imprisonment he was handcuffed and held in a metal cage.
“Every week in captivity I raised requests for next-step procedures. I was always refused on the grounds that I had not signed an admission of crime.”
He was told he had a prostate problem after a checkup when he was first taken into detention, but only got a diagnosis on 28 April this year, according to a family friend. Yu also needs medical treatment for kidney problems, although it was not clear if she had also been denied access to doctors.
The couple were found guilty of illegally obtaining 256 items of information on Chinese citizens, including IDs, mobile phone numbers and travel records, after a one-day trial last August. Although officially an open prosecution, only relatives and consular officials were allowed into court for what was widely seen as a politically driven case.
Humphrey was sentenced to two and a half years in jail and fined 200,000 yuan (£20,260). His wife was sentenced to two years and fined 150,000 yuan. They were released early on medical grounds.
The pair’s sentences appeared to be unusual compared to previous ones, said Prof Don Clarke, a specialist in Chinese Law at George Washington University, in a posting on China Law Prof blog.
Shanghai court records for 20 earlier prosecutions for trafficking private data showed that at least two people convicted of selling millions of pieces of information got only a suspended sentence and a small fine, he wrote. In one of the lowest volume comparable cases, where 4,619 pieces of information had been sold, the defendant was given only a 3,000 yuan fine.
“At the very least, I think the burden is now on those who would assert that this case is not an outlier and possibly a case of selective prosecution,” Clarke wrote, caveating that his assessment was based on preliminary information.
The couple’s arrests sent chills through the foreign business community in China, as Humphrey and his wife were experienced and respected corporate investigators. He had been a Reuters foreign correspondent for nearly two decades and Yu was an accountant before they founded their company ChinaWhys in 2003.
GSK had hired them to investigate why the company’s then head of China operations, Mark Reilly, had been surreptitiously filmed having sex with his Chinese girlfriend in his guarded luxury home, a video sent to the company along with a slew of corruption allegations.
As the investigation continued, however, Humphrey began to suspect that the accusations of fraud might be true. In the summer of 2013, authorities raided the GSK office, confiscating documents and detaining employees. Over six years, they said, GSK may have spent £285m on bribing doctors and hospital officials to sell its drugs.
Weeks later investigators targeted ChinaWhys, but the drugmaker has kept Humphrey and Yu at arm’s length. GSK says the charges against Yu and Humphrey may not be related to GSK, and Chinese state media have never explicitly made the link.
Throughout the fiasco, one figure has lurked in the background: Vivian Shi, GSK’s former government relations manager. Reilly suspected she was the whistleblower, although she has denied it. Shi spent four years at the company, but left in December 2012, shortly before GSK executives began receiving the emails. She is supposedly well-connected in public security, and her father was a senior communist in Shanghai. Humphrey was jailed soon after she learned of the investigation.
Shortly after Humphrey’s detention, a video of him apparently “confessing” in a police station, was broadcast on national TV, an extremely unusual treatment of a foreigner. Humphrey said that despite the televised statement he had always refused to plead guilty in court to the offences he was charged with, frustrating his captors.
“Neither I nor Ying have ever admitted any guilt as charged. We were not guilty of the offences with which we were charged and convicted, but my health was held hostage to signing such a confession. I never signed an admission of crime,” Humphrey said in response to Guardian questions that were passed on to him by a family friend.
The couple are now seeking medical attention as soon as possible and are trying to piece their lives back together after nearly two years behind bars, with limited communication with the outside world and in cells so cramped and overcrowded they sometimes had to sleep on the ground.
“I’m very happy to finally get out of captivity,” Humphrey said. “We have been absolutely shattered by what happened. It will take time to pick up the broken pieces.”