China may reform labour camp system of punishment
CHINA’S INFAMOUS “re-education through labour” system, which allows police to jail minor offenders or political dissidents for up to four years without going through the courts, may be reformed soon, a top legal official said yesterday.
Critics say the labour camps, which were first established in the 1950s to deal with dissidents, breach human rights rules and say the laojiao system is wide open to abuse by local police officials.
“Some loopholes currently exist in the system’s regulations and procedures,” Jiang Wei, the head of a committee on judicial reform, told a government news conference as the State Council, China’s cabinet, launched a white paper on reform of the system.
“The necessity of the reforms has been recognised and authorities have done plenty of research and heard advice from experts and legislators, and they are now working on a plan for the reforms,” said Mr Jiang.
The system was widely criticised after the case of Tang Wei, a woman sentenced to 18 months of re-education through labour after she accused the police of misconduct for how they dealt with the case of her 11-year-old daughter, who was kidnapped, repeatedly raped and sold into prostitution.
However, the government does not plan to do away with the system. Police say it is a useful way of dealing with minor offenders such as drug addicts or prostitutes, without troubling the legal system, but labour camps are also used to silence government critics and punish practitioners of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
Defenders say dissidents are much less harshly treated in labour camps than in full prisons and the sentences are generally shorter. Mr Jiang said the “re-education through labour” system was based in China’s legal system and played an important role in maintaining social order.
According to the UN Human Rights Council, there were 190,000 Chinese held in 320 re-education-through-labour centres in 2009, in addition to an estimated 1.6 million Chinese in the prison system. Five years ago similar plans were floated as part of the country’s efforts to reform the legal system, but nothing came of the plan.
Proposals to change the system of re-education have been tabled at the annual National People’s Congress every year since 2005, but have been pushed aside, generally because of opposition from the police.
Recently, a pilot system was introduced in four Chinese cities to reduce the scale of re-education through labour and bring in better legal guarantees.
“The problems can only be solved by the Chinese way and the wisdom. Copying foreign experience or systems might lead to a bad end,” Mr Jiang said, in response to a question about whether China’s judicial system should follow western models.
Human rights groups say China’s legal system is selective and open to political manipulation, especially in recent high-profile trials of public figures, such as the wife of purged Communist leader Bo Xilai, whose case had elements of a show trial.
However, Beijing has been keen to point out its progress in improving the rule of law, including efforts to end the practice of extracting confessions through torture, protecting the rights of criminal suspects and defendants and protecting attorneys’ rights to exercise their duties. Measures are also being taken to control how the death penalty is applied.