A German Prisoner's Account Forced Labor and Torture in a Chinese Jail

Robert Rother spent almost eight years in a Chinese prison after being convicted of financial fraud. Now that he's out, he told DER SPIEGEL about the forced labor and torture he witnessed while behind bars.

Focke Strangmann / DER SPIEGEL

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It was a meteoric rise. He made his first stock deal at age 13 at the Sparkasse bank in the small town of Unna, near Dortmund. At age 17, he bought his first stake in a company, located in Frankfurt. He had his first Ferrari when he was 26 and bought a second a year later in China. On his wrist, he wore a Hublot Big Bang. But then, it all came crashing down -- and at age 30, he found himself in a prison in Shenzhen, sharing a cell with 15 other prisoners. A hole in the floor served as the toilet.

Rotting away in the cell in summer 2013, Robert Rother saw no way out. Except for one: The plastic cup they had given him. The cup had a lid with an edge that was just sharp enough and the camera in the cell had a blind spot. His plan was to kill himself at night when the others were sleeping. Rother wrote to his mother: "I no longer have any hope. They do what they want. If my case isn't in the media by my birthday on Sept. 12, 2013, then I will be dead. I will take my own life on my birthday."

Rother never actually went through with it. He was sentenced to eight years behind bars for millions in financial fraud and sent to the Dongguan prison in the south, where he was forced to work nine hours a day for six days a week. He became a kind of machine, obeying the guards and kneeling when spoken to. He felt worthless and defenseless amid the suffering that comes with being locked away in a Chinese prison.

He spent a total of seven years and seven months behind bars, a German citizen who witnessed forced labor and torture. He slaved away himself and claims to have been witness to prisoners having their brains "fried," as the convicts call it when guards would apply electrical shocks to inmates' temples.

Rother counted the days, the weeks, the months and years, waiting for it to end. Until Dec. 19, 2018, when he stood up from his spot in the prison factory and walked through the center aisle, the others clapping as they always do when a prisoner is released. That same evening, Rother stepped off the airplane in Hamburg. And a few days later, he called DER SPIEGEL: "This is Robert Rother. I've been waiting to make this call for seven years." He said he wanted to talk about what he experienced, adding that he owed it to those who were still behind bars in Dongguan.

Telling the Story of Chinese Prisons

At 7 p.m. on a Tuesday evening not long later, Rother wants to grab a bite to eat on the North Sea island of Wangerooge, but everything is closed. So his mother cooks for him instead. She runs a guesthouse on the island called Germania, which belongs to the charitable organization Caritas Dortmund, but it, too, was closed for the winter.

Few are interested in visiting the island in January, with storms driving waves onto the beaches and locals into their homes. For Rother, though, it is the perfect place after being locked up in an overcrowded cell for the last several years. He first has to find his way back to the present day. When he was driven to the airport after being released, he says the colors rushing past the window outside almost made him sick. The smell of a woman's perfume was overpowering. Now, he needs time to figure out what comes next. But before he can think about the future, he wants to head back into the past and fulfill his promise of telling the story of how prisoners in a Chinese jail are treated.

Rother's story, his rise and fall, is almost unbelievable. He tells it in the short, simple sentences of a boy who dropped out of school, sometimes so casually and offhandedly that one is tempted to constantly ask: "Is that really true?" But DER SPIEGEL spoke with people who know him and are in a position to confirm his story to the degree possible. Newspapers in China reported on his case in 2013 while scenes that took place prior to his arrest -- back when he was riding the wave of Chinese turbo-capitalism -- can be found on the internet. Such as when he smashed his Ferrari into a bus once when he was drunk.

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The stories he tells about his time in prison, by contrast, cannot be independently verified. Germany's Foreign Ministry is currently monitoring the cases of 11 Germans in Chinese prisons and insists it has received no concrete evidence of torture and forced labor -- and says it received no such evidence from Rother either, even though he was asked about torture each time he was visited by German authorities. Rother and his mother have countered such claims with statements made under oath saying that they reported abuse and forced labor to the German Consulate.

DER SPIEGEL was also able to speak with two other prisoners who spent time in Dongguan: one from South Africa and another from Bangladesh. Both confirmed the essence of Rother's account, including forced labor and torture. Rother's claims are also consistent with the story told by the New Zealander Danny Cancian, who was released from Dongguan in 2012 and whose story of torture was reported on in newspapers around the world. Much of what Rother describes is also reflected in a 2015 Amnesty International report on torture in China. DER SPIEGEL submitted questions to the Chinese Embassy in Berlin but received no response.

THE RISE

According to Robert Rother's version of the story, he was 13 when he went to the Sparkasse savings bank in Unna to open a brokerage account. He had been watching the news broadcaster n-tv and saw the stock market coverage -- and he decided he wanted to be a part of this world that was so far away from his middle-class existence in Unna, where he lived with his widowed mother and two siblings. At the bank, they sent him upstairs to meet with a middle manager who "told me that 13 was too young for the stock market."

Rother, however, disagreed, and a short time later, he had his brokerage account, set up with his mother's assistance. He drew stock charts, read books about trading, and when he got home from school, he made his trades. And the Sparkasse staff quickly became much friendlier to him.

His life became split between boring mornings at school and exciting afternoons of trading. Indeed, the mornings interested him less and less. He wanted to learn, he says, "but something different than what was being taught in school." After the 10th grade, Rother left the university-track high school he was attending and enrolled in a vocational school. When one of the teachers began teaching a lesson on what a publicly traded company was, he decided he had had enough.

Rother says that by then, he had long since opened accounts in the United States and had started day-trading on the tech-exchange Nasdaq. He didn't do well initially but managed to turn things around. And in 1999, he received an email from a young entrepreneur in the Taunus region, just outside of Frankfurt, asking him if he wanted to launch an investment firm together. Via his mother, he became a partner in Nauerz & Noell AG in Frankfurt. He was just 18 years old and still had seven years to fulfill the promise he had made to himself when he was 15: "In 10 years, I'll have my first Ferrari."

His days now began with the European markets in the morning and ended with American trading in the evenings. "My heart beat to the pulse of the markets 24 hours a day," he recalls. "At some point, I thought my head was exploding." Again, Rother was among the youngest, but this time, it was a cohort he would rather not have been a part of: He suffered burnout at age 22.

An acquaintance of his asked him if he wanted to come along on a business trip, so in 2004, Rother flew to Shanghai, where he stayed in a hotel in Jin Mao Tower, with the pulsating megacity beneath him -- a city promising him the life he wanted in the country of the future. Back at home, he quickly got rid of his apartment and then headed back to the Far East.

Looking for a New Start

According to Rother, he pursued a lot of ideas, went on a lot of trips and attended myriad parties, but had little success. Ultimately, he was so broke that he couldn't even afford a taxi. It was at this point that he found himself sitting in a Starbucks one day in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou working on his laptop when his dream woman appeared, Zheng Li. She asked if the seat next to him was taken, a question that marked the beginning of a fateful affair that would ultimately cost Rother eight years of his life and even more of hers: Zheng Li received a life sentence as the main perpetrator.

Rother says he had never before met someone with such a razor-sharp intellect. A lawyer from an affluent Shanghai family, she had been accused in the city of having embezzled 11 million yuan, the equivalent of almost 1.5 million euros. She left the city looking for a new start, something Rother was interested in as well. He had the vision and, as Rother says, "she could transform the ideas in my head into capital." And that money was to be found in Shenzhen, a boom-town of 12 million people on the border to Hong Kong. The two began trading there in 2006, initially with diamonds.

The verdict handed down by a Shenzhen court in December 2013 claims that Rother and Zheng Li had reeled in business partners with smaller deals, and when they then entrusted the couple with expensive diamonds to be sold to foreigners or large sums of money for lucrative investments, they would filch most of it. The court said the two set up a pyramid scheme, using the money from new investors to pay the interest owed to old investors. But then, everything collapsed and, the court said, millions disappeared. According to the verdict, Rother alone was responsible for $21.3 million in damages.

Rother claims the court's version of events isn't entirely accurate, insisting that it hadn't been a pyramid scheme at all. What kind of pyramid scheme would have even lasted that long, anyway, he asks? Plus, the alleged victims, he says, were rich businessmen with significant experience in finance. He claims they knew what was happening with their money or diamonds. "Most deals did well, after all," he says, a grin flitting across his face. He says he can explain everything, just that he can't say that everything was strictly legal. He allows that he would have arrested himself, too, had he been a state prosecutor.

According to Rother's version, he didn't defraud any investors, he merely made deals that weren't allowed by the Chinese state, things like moving money abroad for the nouveau riche -- much of it from the gray economy, Rother believes. Or he would take 2-3 percent interest per day as a loan shark from borrowers who, for example, were granted the right to buy farmland by corrupt politicians, only for the property to be designated for construction a short time later, vastly increasing its value. None of that, though, is mentioned in the court papers.

Buying Trust

He and Zheng Li were also active in the gambling city of Macau, ensuring that there was always sufficient cash in the private backrooms of the casinos, where millionaires would play for massive pots. They also had excellent ties to the stock exchange supervisory authority in Shenzhen, from whom they frequently received insider tips, Rother says, admitting that such a thing was obviously illegal.

In photos taken at the time, Rother's round, childlike face and constant smile make him look like the kind of guy everyone wants to know. But he made sure that he only hung out with the right people. Access is everything in China and you have to earn trust. Or buy it. Once he had managed to scrape together 5 million yuan, he plunked down 4.5 million of it for a Ferrari F430.

Crazy? Perhaps. But it gave him access to the Ferrari Owner's Club, with the head of the local Ferrari office making the introductions. Rother recalls being stared at by the 50 rich Chinese present as he walked in for the first time, with the same question on every face: What is this child doing here? But then they figured out that the child was a Ferrari owner, and they all headed to the karaoke bar and partied to Robbie Williams' "Better Man." And suddenly, he had 50 new business associates. And a Ferrari. It came one year later than planned: He was 26.

He went on to buy himself the Hublot watch along with two more, an Audemars Piguet and a Breitling. He also got himself a Mercedes S 500, a Maserati Quattroporte and another Ferrari, this time a 430 Scuderia, supercharged to 747 hp and with a custom paint job in the black-and-yellow of his favorite football team, Borussia Dortmund. For that vehicle, he bought two license plates, one for Macau and another for China, so that he didn't have to get out of the car at the border. The dual-plates were limited edition and cost him $60,000 on the black market. But as a status symbol, they were priceless.

And because he now knew quite a lot about Ferraris, he opened up a Ferrari tuning shop in Shenzhen. Photos from the grand opening on Jan. 31, 2010, can still be found on the web, showing plenty of champagne and girls in short skirts. And plenty of Rother himself.

THE CASE

Listening to Rother talk about his life back in early 2011, it sounds like things were going perfectly. He had 30 people working for him and had come up with his next business idea, that of establishing a news website in English for people investing in China. He was sponsoring an Italian racing team in the Le Mans series. His Ferrari had been fixed up again after the collision with the bus, and the police had generously waited six hours before making him submit to an alcohol test. Zheng Li had even forgiven him for his new girlfriend Miao. Best of all, Dortmund had won the German football league. Rother had flown to the celebration in Dortmund, partying together with other fans on a highway that had been closed for the occasion. Life could be so easy.

He returned to China on May 20 and was sitting in Lili Marleen, his favorite bar in Shenzhen, when two policemen suddenly appeared in front of him and told him they needed to talk. He didn't know it at the time, but he would never again see the Lili Marleen. And his old life was history.

At first, he says, he thought there had been "a misunderstanding." After all, hadn't he and Zheng Li taken pains to ensure that nothing could be proved against them? He remembered something an acquaintance had told him -- that not everyone in government was pleased with his recently launched news website. Could that be it? Or did it have to do with the Taiwanese man who had suddenly asked for his money back after having entrusted it to Rother in the hopes of earning a 30 percent return?

Rother claims that the police only began questioning him after waiting 19 hours, though this detail is impossible to verify. He could hardly keep his eyes open during the questioning, he claims, adding that an officer told him that if he confessed to having stolen money, he would be allowed to return to Germany. But Rother didn't confess.

Instead, he was locked up in a cell at Shenzhen Detention Center No. 3. There was a wooden sleeping platform next to the wall, but 10 or 11 people were already lying on it by the time Rother got there, so he laid down on the floor. The next interrogation took place the following day. Rother claims he was handed a transcript in Chinese, but that it was filled with errors. He was told, he says, that they would be corrected, but they never were. Rother alleges one of his interrogators told him he could be facing the death penalty. A bluff? Given the sums of money involved in the fraud accusations against him, probably not.

Rother requested a lawyer, and says a policeman responded by asking why he would need a lawyer if he hadn't done anything wrong. The German Consulate was at least allowed to send officials to visit Rother, a flicker of hope even as his hopes of being released began to fade. At first, they said they would have to keep him there for three days. But three became 30, and 30 turned into several months.

'I Wanted To Show They Hadn't Broken Me'

His interrogators insisted that he tell them where all the money had been hidden. But Rother maintained his silence. He says the police claimed that his ex-girlfriend had talked and told them he had been in charge. Even then, Rother kept mum. A 2015 report released by Amnesty International noted that confessions are the most common means of evidence used in reaching convictions in China. Police rely heavily on extracting confessions. But as Rother would later learn, Zheng Li never testified against him at all.

When the trial finally arrived, it felt like a farce to him, and it was around this time that he began thinking of suicide. Chinese media showed images of Rother on his way to court, smiling as though everything was just a joke. "I wanted to show that they hadn't broken me in jail," he says.

But they had.

DETENTION

July 21, 2014: Foreigners like Rother were imprisoned in Dongguan, but most of the 5,000 inmates there were Chinese -- swindlers, drug dealers, human-traffickers, even murderers. Rother was inmate No. 27614. And they no longer called him Rother. He says he was given a Chinese name: Luozi Luobote. From that point on, when he had to report to someone or speak to a guard, he had to clench his fist, raise his right hand and say: "Honorable guard, I am prisoner Luozi Luobote." Then he would get down on his knees and make a request.

For the first month, he was placed in the cell block for new arrivals, each cell designed to hold 18 inmates, but packed with around 40 of them. Outside, the temperature was 36 degrees Celsius (97 degrees Fahrenheit), and inside the air stung with the stench of sweating men and the odors coming out of the toilet holes. He told the guards he had high blood pressure. He was examined and had a bit of luck: His blood pressure reading was over 200. They gave him a sedative, and he was even given a bed in the cell, which he only had to share with a small Chinese man. The first lesson Luozi Luobote learned in prison was that whatever they might do to him, they didn't want to end up with a dead German.

After a month, new arrivals were moved to other blocks and other cells, each holding 18 beds and 18 prisoners. A total of 90 inmates were placed on each floor. It was their "hall." They had to get up at 5:30 a.m., at which time they were given a bowl of rice with vegetables. At 6:50 a.m., they had to march down the "hall" as they headed to factory building No. 6. It was located inside the prison walls.

Forced Labor

They were required to march in lockstep, swinging their arms and turning as a group to the right or to the left. Rother says those who didn't take this seriously could count on getting kicked -- either from the guards or from prisoners who had been assigned to oversee other inmates. They were the guards' ears in the cells and their extended arm when it came to beatings. Luozi Luobote learned that those who step out of line are seen as challenging the system, and no one is more dangerous than those who attack that system.

He says that he too was kicked by a guard because he didn't march along quickly enough. Luozi Luobote knew that everything was under video surveillance, so he lodged a complaint. Prison officials gave the guard a dressing down and he even had to apologize. Luozi Luobote was asked if he forgave him.

It was another lesson for Luozi Luobote: People aren't really all equal under communism. There were prisoners from countries whose consulates were constantly checking to see how they were doing. Like the German. But there were other prisoners whose countries didn't seem concerned about them at all, including Africans and Vietnamese. They were as low down in the hierarchy as the Chinese. Rother claims that a warden told him that if he didn't forgive the guard, life would be made more difficult for him. And that it was up to him how he got along.

The workday began at 7 a.m. Others at the factory built model cars and luggage locks. Rother says the model Porsche cars had the name of a Japanese manufacturer on them, while the brand-name on the luggage locks was Samsonite, though the company says it knows nothing about parts being made in prison, that it strongly rejects forced labor and that it intends to investigate the matter. Block Two, Fourth Floor, his "hall," built transformers. Luozi Luobote says his work entailed wrapping copper wire around an iron ring. He says he had to take 2 meters of wire and pull it through the ring with a hook 61 times until it was finished. Then came the next piece.

At 12 p.m., they marched back to Block Two, where they were given rice with vegetables and sometimes meat, including chicken feet and heads, which he says he fished out and threw away. After that, there was a second shift, lasting until shortly after 6 p.m., at which time they were allowed to eat and watch state television. The guards gave sermons about education under communism. At the end of the day, they were given an hour and a half of free time. Then came roll call and lights out.

Factory work was governed by a point system, and Rother says he received about a point for each transformer he finished. Early on, as a worker in the sixth class category, Luozi Luobote had to achieve 240 points a day. After three months, that amount rose to 288, making him a worker of the fifth class. He rose no higher than that -- blood pressure. First class workers had to achieve 480 points a day. If he had amassed enough points by the end of the month, he was paid 20 yuan, or 2.60 euros, he could use to buy things. And those who achieved or exceeded their monthly targets over the course of several years were granted early release. That was the good side. But there was a bad side, too. Those who didn't work fast enough were punished. Not only were they able to buy less, they also weren't allowed to make their monthly call outside the prison, and they weren't allowed to watch TV in their spare time.

"The work targets were raised higher and higher until they were no longer reachable," Rother claims today. "They squeezed the juice out of us like lemons." He says the prisoners called themselves "machines," and they worked nine-hour days, not the eight hours stipulated by law. They sometimes even had to work on Sundays.

Electric Shocks and other Torture

Rother says those who dared to rebel against the system were subjected to its full severity. Those measures, he claims, included the iron chair, electric shocks, solitary confinement -- torture. Rother and two other prisoners -- Freddie Abdallah of South Africa and Bhuiyan Rahman of Bagladesh -- all described their experiences at Dongguan in interviews with DER SPIEGEL.

The iron chair: According to the prisoners, one chair stood at the front of the factory building, and another was in the so-called "Culture Room" in the residential block. The tube steel chair was reserved for individuals who refused to work, for thugs and for prisoners who tried to cheat on their points. Prisoners' arms and legs would be tied to it and the pipes on the chair would press deeper and deeper into the flesh with every hour that passed. They claim that prisoners weren't just placed there for hours, but for days and sometimes even weeks. The prisoner's hands and feet would go numb and swell up.

Electric shocks: New Zealander Danny Cancian, who was released in 2012, claimed that he was shocked in the mouth during his incarceration. Rother claims to have seen that practice himself, recalling a Chinese man who was forced to sit on the iron chair in the Culture Room after refusing to work. He says police officers sprayed pepper spray in the air "as a warm-up." Then Rother heard the electrical buzzing of the Taser, a sound he says he will never forget. A policeman pressed the shocker into the prisoner's arms and upper body, whereupon the prisoner soiled himself. That was followed by the temple. Rahman, the former convict from Bangladesh, says that one prisoner, a man named George from Nigeria, went crazy afterward.

Block 14: Freddie Abdallah says he tried to commit suicide by swallowing paint thinner while in prison in 2009. "After that they locked me up in the solitary confinement block," he says. Block 14 was reserved for prisoners who had violated the rules in a particularly flagrant manner. A suicide attempt was one of the most serious rules violations.

"They put me on the chair for a week, I even had to relieve myself in the chair," he says. "Then there were the electroshocks -- they didn't care where, in the neck, on the legs, on the chest. After the electric shocks, the pepper spray burned like fire on the skin." Rother can remember prisoners from Block 14 wearing chains on their hands and feet, hunched over as they walked. For days at a time. Some were made to make their way through the prison with a sign hanging around their necks that read: "I'm ashamed of what I have done."

Finding Inner Peace

Officially, there is no torture in Chinese prisons. Beijing is a signatory to the UN Convention against Torture and since 2010, the government has passed several laws aimed at preventing acts of cruelty in prisons. But as the Amnesty International report suggested, things have changed little in practice. Its investigation noted that iron chairs, Tasers, water deprivation, the tying of prisoners to their beds and beatings were still taking place in Chinese prisons in 2015. The accounts provided by Rother about his time in Dongguan seem to corroborate that report. He claims that although cameras were in place at the prison, they were aimed elsewhere when torture was going on. And when government inspectors turned up every few months, the iron chairs would be put away just before they arrived.

For him, though, that is all in the past. Rother's new focus is on finding his inner peace -- something between the megalomaniac years spent in Shenzhen and the time when his was little more than prisoner No. 27614. If he's learned anything, it's that he can handle anything, even sleeping on a concrete floor.

At 36, Rother is still young enough for a new lease on life. He says he wants to get back into business but that he also doesn't believe money will become the kind of drug it used to be for him. He had so much, but he also knows the price he had to pay for it.

"You have to eat shit to know what it tastes like," he says.

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