'I didn't see the Sun or the stars for four years'

GRIM TALE: Danny Cancian, of Kapiti, presents placards in a YouTube clip that tells his story of brutal treatment and violence in a Chinese prison.
GRIM TALE: Danny Cancian, of Kapiti, presents placards in a YouTube clip that tells his story of brutal treatment and violence in a Chinese prison.

What was supposed to be a business trip instead became a stint in a Chinese jail for Danny Cancian after a restaurant fight took a lethal turn.

He was charged with manslaughter and, although the judge at his trial acknowledged that he did not start the fight, he was deemed to have used excessive force on one of his attackers, who died of a brain bleed.

"My lawyer wasn't allowed to speak up and say anything," Mr Cancian said yesterday. "He [would be] told to shut up by the judge."

HOME AGAIN: Danny Cancian.
HOME AGAIN: Danny Cancian.

Good behaviour and hard work gained Mr Cancian enough reward points in prison to apply for his sentence to be reduced, and he arrived home on November 29.

Now, for the first time, he has told his story about the "cruel" conditions he endured.

The first 16 months of his sentence were in a detention centre in Fushan, where he spent his days sitting in a cell with 50 other men.

"I spent one year and four months in a room that had just two big exhaust fans. Lights were on 24 hours, seven days a week. The fans were on 24 hours seven days a week."

He had to go to hospital several times for his asthma, aggravated by his cellmates' smoking, and he was losing a lot of weight.

It was a relief when he was finally transferred to Dongguan prison, in the Guangdong region of southern China. "It was actually really enjoyable to be transferred to the prison."

There he had to share a cell with 18 people, and sleep in a double bed with another inmate.

For six days a week, the prisoners worked in a factory next to the jail. "Every morning at 5am they'd march us all to the factory, and then at 7pm we'd come back."

They had 10 minutes in the morning to drink their rice water before heading to the factory. Lunch was rice and boiled cabbage. Dinner did not offer much variety, other than the occasional fish ball.

"Disgusting, horrible, smelly things," he said. "The prison used to buy all the old dead pigs and dead animals and stuff."

Dysentery was rife, and he lost about 20 kilograms over his four years in jail.

He was a fitness fanatic before his ill-fated trip to China, going to the gym nearly every morning. But that all changed in jail.

"We were not allowed to exercise. You get put in solitary confinement if you exercise because, if you exercise, then you may be able to escape or something."

He feared for his life at times, especially because of diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV.

"They would use the same needles in the so-called hospital there. I kept away from all that, I was quite careful. I had injections, but I always made sure I was first."

Secondhand smoke was the biggest problem for the asthmatic Mr Cancian, as about 90 per cent of the prison population smoked.

"Sixty or 70 people were in the corridor smoking at one time. I got really bad asthma and allergies, it was terrible."

There was no recreation, and none of the courtyard exercise shown in Western prison films. "I didn't see the Sun or the stars for four years."

He still has nightmares about his experiences. "There were people hanging themselves every week. They had to take all the wire clothes lines out of the cells."

The prison police kept the 5400 inmates under control through violence and threats.

"One Chinese policeman can control 1000 prisoners, that's how bad it is."

Prisoners could earn points toward a reduction in their sentence through good behaviour and hard work, but could also be given minus points, seven of which could land them in an isolation cell.

"Everything is isolation. If you don't make your bed properly, minus one point. If you don't keep yourself and your uniform clean, minus one point. As soon as you get to seven points, you go to isolation.

"I got put in isolation once, right at the beginning. I wore the wrong shoes, I wore the sandals because it was really hot. I didn't know."

He said a prison guard started "nutting off" and punched him in the face. "Naturally I led back with an uppercut and knocked him out."

He was thrown into isolation for two weeks. "From 7 in the morning you've got to cross your legs and fold your arms. You're not allowed to touch the walls or anything.

"If you do something wrong or say something wrong, they'll come in and Tase you. I got Tasered in the mouth."

Those two weeks were enough to keep him out of major trouble for the rest of his sentence, although he narrowly avoided isolation another time when a pharmaceutical company attempted to test a flu vaccine on him.

"[They would] march us off to get tested. I said to them no way, you just put me in solitary confinement because you are not trying out drugs on me."

The factory where the prisoners worked produced earphones for large airlines, and inductors for electrical parts. "It's all about work, nothing about rehabilitation," he said. "The prison was making, I think, US$10 million profit a year."

Since returning to New Zealand, he has started campaigning on behalf of other New Zealanders imprisoned overseas. As of March 1, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade knew of 90 New Zealanders imprisoned in 26 countries.

Mr Cancian is lobbying to have New Zealand sign a treaty for international prisoner transfers. "Why doesn't [John Key] bring these prisoners home from countries that are torturing them?"

New Zealand is the only country in the OECD yet to sign up to international prison transfers.

He is also trying to shine a light on the forced labour in Dongguan prison, and expose the companies that buy products made by prisoners like himself.

"Every time you put an earphone on during a flight, prisoners have made that under forced labour."

Despite the recurring nightmares, Mr Cancian is now looking forward to a fresh start.

His wife, Amanda, said in 2011 that she had sold their home in Kapiti to send money to her husband, who was ordered by the courts to pay $90,000 to his victim's family.

Since then they have been living in a family member's house in Naenae but they plan to move to Tauranga, where Mr Cancian is at the moment. "Everything down in Wellington reminds me of my mum and my dad."

His mother died from cancer in July last year, four months before his release. He did not know about her death until his return, although his family tried to get him freed early so he could say goodbye. His father, Robert Cancian, died after being hit by a baseball bat during a home invasion in 1983. His brother, Tony, was also the victim of a home invasion, in 2006, when he fought back against three attackers and disarmed one of them.

Whatever the future holds for Danny Cancian, he knows one thing for sure: he will never return to China.

"They said I can't go back for five years, once I am deported. I said to them you might as well make it 500 years because I am never setting foot back in China again."

The Dominion Post