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Lawmakers call for labor camp reform

Updated: 2013-03-03 17:09

BEIJING - Ahead of the Chinese national legislature's annual session kicking off on Tuesday, national lawmakers have backed reform of controversial labor camps in which people can be sentenced to up to four years' "re-education" by police without trial.

The labor camp system, known as laojiao, was "a disgrace to China's national image and required urgent reform," as it runs against the principles of lawful governance and justice which the country pursues, said Yang Weicheng, who is a deputy to the National People's Congress (NPC) and lawyer from Shandong Province.

Deng Hui, an NPC deputy and law school dean from Jiangxi province, said the labor camp system violated various laws, including the Law on Legislation and the Administrative Penalty Law. It's also a deviation from a human rights convention the Chinese government had signed, he added.

"The reform of laojiao is imminent and inescapable," Deng said.

The re-education through labor camp system was established in the 1950s to consolidate the newly founded republic and rectify social order. It allows police to detain people, usually charged with minor offenses, for up to four years without an open trial.

Although it has helped maintain social order over the past several decades, its downside has also emerged. As an extra-judicial penalty, it's prone to misuse and abuse by the police. Moreover, it runs counter to increasing legal awareness among the public and China's endeavor for the rule of law.

An NPC deputy and legal expert from Fujian province, Dai Zhongchuan said, "To some degree, the labor camp system makes people live in fear. It's an unchecked and unsupervised measure that can deprive and limit people's freedom outside court, making it extremely liable to be abused by power."

Calls for the system's reform have been running high for years. Several recent high-profile cases involving misuse of labor camp education have put it even more under the spotlight.

In one case, Tang Hui, a woman in Central China's Hunan province, was sentenced to internment in a labor camp in August after demanding tougher penalties for the seven men convicted of abducting, raping and prostituting her 11-year-old daughter. She was released within a week following complaints from the public and academics.

In another case, Ren Jianyu, 25, was arrested in 2011 for forwarding and commenting on more than 100 pieces of "negative information" online. A month after his arrest, he was given a two-year term in a labor camp for "incitement to subvert state power" without a court process. Ren was released in November last year after serving over half of his sentence.

The central authorities have recognized the need for the reform. In January, a national political and legal work conference put the process as a priority for 2013.

Some provinces have already acted. Southwest Yunnan has stopped sending people to re-education through labor camps on grounds including threatening national security, petitioning by causing unrest, and smearing the image of officials.

In late January, South China's Guangdong province said it had made plans to end the system within the year.

However, Yang Weicheng said full abolishment of laojiao was still difficult at the moment and reducing its use could be a measure applied during the transition.

In Deng Hui's opinion, the first and foremost task of the reform is to hand over the right to execute laojiao to judicial authorities, while at the same time resort to community correction as a possible substitute.