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Lawyers calling for reform of laojiao system

Updated: 2012-08-16 01:53
By ZHAO YINAN ( China Daily)

Prominent lawyers are joining those now calling on China to reform its controversial laojiao system, or re-education through labor system, which allows suspects to be sentenced to forced labor without first undergoing a trial.

The system, which has been in operation for more than 50 years, again became the center of a fierce debate after it had been used to detain a mother who was appealing for justice in her daughter’s rape case.

Ten legal professionals sent an open letter to the government on Tuesday warning that the punishment can lead to abuses of power.

"Standing regulations do not require laojiao management committees to release a written verdict to explain how their decisions were made, so it’s difficult to know if a decision was fair," said Li Fangping, an author of the letter and a Beijing lawyer known for his work in protecting the rights of people with HIV.

The letter was sent to the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of Justice. In it, the lawyers wrote that the laojiao system is neither transparent nor well-supervised.

Both ministries have subordinate bodies that oversee the system, which can force a person to spend from one to three years in confinement and undergo compulsory labor. If authorities conclude the subject of laojiao has not been sufficiently re-educated, the sentence can be extended another year.

Li, who said the ministries have not sent him a reply to the letter, said all suspects should receive legal assistance when their cases are under review. He also said people who are older than 60 should be exempt from punishment under laojiao.

He said it would be ideal if any measure that could be used to deprive a person of his freedom, such as detention, be subject to judicial review. For now, though, it’s more realistic to try to reform the laojiao system than abolish it.

Neither of the ministries that received the letter had released a statement about it by Wednesday night. China Daily’s interview request to the Research Society of Laojiao, under the Ministry of Justice, went unanswered.

The letter came amid a storm of criticism that arose after the mother of a rape victim was made to undergo laojiao for repeatedly petitioning authorities.

Tang Hui, 39, was accused of "seriously disturbing the social order and exerting a negative impact on society" and sent on Aug 2 to a laojiao center in Hunan province’s Yongzhou to serve an 18-month sentence.

Tang had accused the city police of falsifying evidence in order to reduce the sentences handed down to those who were responsible for the kidnap, rape and forced prostitution of her daughter, who was 11 years old when the crimes occurred.

The mother was released on Friday out of consideration for the fact that "her 17-year-old daughter is still a minor and requires her mother’s care", according to a provincial publicity department statement.

The case outraged the public and prompted more than 700,000 posts on Sina Weibo, a popular micro-blogging service in China. Most of the messages expressed sympathy for her and called for justice to be served.

The discussion reinvigorated a debate about various proposed changes to the laojiao system that lawmakers have discussed at annual meetings of National People’s Congress in the past several years.

Ying Yong, president of Shanghai High People’s Court, is one of them.

He noted in a proposal submitted during this year’s NPC session, held in March in Beijing, that the system has contributed greatly to social order and improved economic development. Even so, the country finds itself amid different circumstances than were present 50 years ago and has established a legal system. Laojiao should therefore be modified, he said.

Because the penalties under laojiao can exceed even the six-month minimum penalty for criminal offenses, Ying said, that undermines the notion that laojiao is imposed on suspects whose deeds have been not serious enough to constitute crimes.

He said the system should have been modified after the Administrative Coercion Law went into effect in 2012.

That law, which regulates administrative power and protects civil rights, lists several compulsory measures that administrative organs can take and that can lead to people losing their freedom. Laojiao is not one of them.

Ying called for a quick adoption of a draft law that pertains to the correction of illegal acts and that has been on the NPC’s annual legislative agenda since 2005. Many believe the measure will be more lenient toward the legal rights of juvenile offenders and do more to protect them.

It has yet to be submitted to the top legislature to be read.

In 2007, the NPC Standing Committee said there are "lots of disagreements".

A large one concerns which government department should be in charge of laojiao centers and which has the right to impose such a punishment on a person, Chen Sixi, deputy director of the NPC Internal and Judicial Affairs Committee, said in a previous interview.

One compromise, he said, could entail setting up a "relatively independent but specialized" institution to bring more social resources into the process.

Legal Daily, a newspaper affiliated to the Ministry of Justice, quoted a Ministry of Justice statement as saying laojiao had been used to punish offenders in 580,000 cases related to drug abuse by 2005. Those made up more than half of the cases that resulted in laojiao penalties.