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A policeman leads labor camp inmates as they walk along a road with their wrists tied to a rope in Emei Mountain, Sichuan province on September 26, 2012. Photo: Reuters
Southwest China's Yunnan province has suspended the approval of laojiao (劳教) decisions, a system of re-education through labor that Chinese lawmakers expect to abolish this year.
Those who are suspected of jeopardizing State security, repeatedly petitioning and defaming Chinese leaders will no longer be punished through laojiao, Meng Sutie (孟苏铁), secretary of the provincial Party's commission of politics and law, said on Tuesday during a televised meeting.
The province has suspended all approvals of laojiao punishment, and people who violate the law will be punished in accordance with the rule of law rather than through laojiao, Meng said.
The labor camps system, established in the 1950s, allows police to detain those suspected of wrongdoing for up to four years without an open trial.
Laojiao inmates who are still in the camp will continue serving their terms, Meng said.
Meng said the laojiao system had played a positive role in maintaining social order in the past but problems and negative effects were also exposed.
"Reform is imperative," he said.
Re-education to be phased out
Human-rights groups allege those detained in re-education-through-labor camps are subjected to physical abuse by guards and long hours of physical labor in mines, brick factories and in other tough working conditions.
China's "black jails" came into the spotlight this week after a Beijing court on Tuesday sentenced 10 men to prison for illegally detaining petitioners.
Exact numbers of Chinese detained under the laojiao system remain unclear, but state-run Xinhua news agency quoted official statistics this year saying that by the end of 2008, 160,000 people were being held in 350 facilities nationwide.
Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强), a lawyer who handled several cases involving laojiao, spoke highly of the change in Yunnan, saying he was glad to see the province gradually reduce the use of the system.
"Suspending the system doesn't mean the provincial authorities will resume using it again some day. Instead, re-education through labor may be phased out in the future, which, I think, is more meaningful," Pu said.
Wu Ming'an, a professor specializing in criminal law with China University of Political Science and Law, said the change should be encouraged because it is wrong to restrict a resident's personal freedom in an administrative way.
Wu said that the use of the word "suspend" is sensible, "since it will leave some time for the province to study how to handle the situation," he added.
Some legal experts expressed skepticism. Li Fangping, an outspoken rights lawyer and critic of China's laojiao system, said local officials appeared to be trying to look bold amid calls from the central leadership, and grassroots pressure, to strengthen the legal system.
Nonetheless, he said, the laojiao system "won't be abolished. It can only be changed."
Wang Gongyi, an expert specializing in laojiao and former director of the Ministry of Justice's research office, said the effect of the province's action will not be seen in a short time because elimination of the system is a legislation issue.
"If the National People's Congress, the top legislature, can entirely scrap the system, the province's change will have a better effect," Wang said. "After all, a provincial government has no right to decide whether to abolish the system or not."
Before Yunnan's action, Guangdong province said it had made preparations to be the leading region to phase out the laojiao system.
Yan Zhichan, director of the Guangdong Department of Justice, said on Jan 29 that the province may stop using the laojiao system this year if the National People's Congress abolishes the system.
She said that according to information made public so far, a reform plan will be delivered to the top legislature for approval. She added that once the system is abolished, the department will not accept laojiao inmates, and current inmates will be released after they have served their terms.