BEIJING (AP) — China's government is working on reforms to its system of imprisoning people in labor camps without trial, a senior judicial official said Tuesday in a sign that Beijing recognizes the much-criticized camps are problematic.
Jiang Wei, the head of a government committee on judicial reform, said the government has found widespread agreement among legal scholars and lawmakers on the need to reform the labor camp detention system, and an overhaul is being devised based on that consensus.
Jiang's comments were the firmest indication that after years of debate the government is preparing to revise but not abolish the system — known as "re-education through labor" — that critics say tramples civil rights and is prone to abuse.
Some 190,000 Chinese were being held in 320 re-education centers in 2009, according to a U.N. Human Rights Council report. That's in addition to an estimated 1.6 million Chinese held in the formal prison system.
Introduced in the 1950s, labor re-education was originally meant for opponents of the communist regime. Today, the system authorizes police to jail people for three years without trial, and a fourth year can be added for bad behavior. While often used for drug abusers, prostitutes and others accused of minor offenses, labor camps have also been used to silence government critics and punish practitioners of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
Police and officials have found the system a handy tool for dispensing punishment without intrusions by lawyers or judges.
Jiang, speaking at a news conference, said that the system "plays an important role in maintaining social order," suggesting that the government is unwilling to consider getting rid of it. But, he said, Chinese society had "reached a consensus on the need to reform the re-education through labor system."
Public criticism over the system has been rising, most recently in August after a woman in Hunan province was sentenced to 18 months in a labor camp because she demanded tougher penalties for the seven men convicted of abducting, raping and prostituting her 11-year-old daughter.
Tang Hui, the crusading mother who petitioned courts and local government officials, was released within a week following an outcry from intellectuals, bloggers and even state media.
The state-run Global Times newspaper delivered an unusually frank critique of Tang's treatment and China's legal system.
"It's worth noting that China's petition and labor re-education system both have loopholes, and can easily lead to controversies," it said.
Jiang was also pressed for information about the poet Liu Xia, wife of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. She has been under house arrest in her Beijing home for nearly two years, apparently without legal charge. Her plight has drawn protests from the U.S. and other governments.
Jiang responded that he had "no information to report," and suggested journalists could address questions to the "relevant government departments" but declined to clarify which agency he was referring to.