SEOUL, Oct. 19 (UPI) -- Unpaid labor, physical beatings, sexual abuse, torture and degrading conditions face North Koreans who are brought to detention centers for interrogation and to await trial, according to a report released Monday by New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The report, "'Worth Less Than an Animal': Abuses and Due Process Violations in Pretrial Detention in North Korea," is based on interviews with 46 North Koreans outside the country, including eight former officials and 22 individuals who were held in the detention centers.
It is the first in-depth look at the workings of the opaque criminal justice system inside North Korea, where citizens are detained for offenses ranging from watching South Korean broadcasts to having a Chinese cellphone to smuggling goods across the border.
"What we discovered is that people have a very good reason to fear pretrial detention," said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, at an online press conference for the report released Monday.
The interviewees' "experiences show that detainees face torture, humiliation, coerced confessions [and] highly unhygienic conditions in cramped cells where sleep is difficult or impossible," Robertson said. Food consists of near-starvation rations, he added, and most detainees are forced to provide hard labor.
North Korea has an official, law-based judicial system on paper, but in reality, detainees face a presumption of guilt, lack of due process and flawed trials, according to the report.
"Their fate often depends on whether they can muster both political connections, and, importantly, bribes paid to police, prosecutors and others to get out of it," Robertson said.
Once arrested, former detainees said they had no access to independent lawyers and no way of reporting torture or violations of criminal procedure law.
One interviewee, a former government official named Yoon Young Cheol, told Human Rights Watch that he was detained and beaten severely before even being questioned. He later found out that someone had accused him of being a spy.
"Violent beatings and hitting were constant in the beginning of questioning for one month," he said. "They kicked me with their boots, punched me with their fists or hit me with a thick stick, all over my body."
Former detainees described being forced to kneel or sit with their legs crossed on the floor for days at a time. If anyone in the cramped cell moved, all the cellmates would be punished.
"Every single day was horrible, so painful and unbearable," said Park Ji Cheol, a former lumberjack who was arrested for smuggling. "Many times, if I or others moved [in the cell], the guards would order me or all the cellmates to extend our hands through the cell bars and would step on them repeatedly with their boots or hit our hands with their leather belts."
Female detainees also described sexual abuse at the hands of the guards.
Kim Sun Young, a former trader who had escaped to China but was then forcibly returned, told Human Rights Watch that she was raped by the interrogator in charge of her case and also sexually assaulted by a police officer during questioning.
Kim said "her fate was in their hands and she was powerless to resist," according to the report.
The report called on the North Korean government to "end endemic torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in detention and prison" and to allow access by international rights monitors from the United Nations and the Red Cross.
Human Rights Watch also called on South Korea, the United States and other countries to "publicly and privately pressure the North Korean government to undertake the reforms recommended in this report."
In 2014, the United Nations found that North Korea's systematic and widespread human rights violations constituted crimes against humanity.