The notorious system that lets police send detainees to labor camps without trial will be halted this year, said Meng Jianzhu, secretary of the Central Politics and Law Commission, at a conference on January 7.
Meng said the Communist Party’s Central Committee would submit its decision to cease using the camps to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) this spring.
Meng served as the nation’s minister of public security until December and was named a Politburo member in November. The commission he now heads is the party’s top authority on police and legal matters.
In fact, Meng said, police would stop sending people detained for petitioning grievances to labor camps even before the congress acts.
What remains unclear is what might happen to people already held in the camps.
The re-education through labor system was borrowed from the former Soviet Union. It lets police put suspects into custody for up to four years without a court hearing, and it’s become an increasingly sensitive issue for public grievances in recent years.
Many legal experts say the system should be scrapped, arguing the law behind it violates China’s constitution and is often abused by the police.
Two recent cases especially angered the public and caused critics to call for an end to the extralegal system they say gave police unchecked power.
Tang Hui, the mother of a girl forced into prostitution, was sent to a labor camp by police for protesting against what she viewed as improper handling of the case.
And a government official named Ren Jianyu was sentenced to two years in a labor camp for posting microblog messages that the Chongqing Re-education through Labor Committee said were an “incitement to subvert state power.”
After Meng’s announcement, Ren wrote on his microblog that “Everyone has contributed to the halt of labor camp system.”
Xu Xin, director of the Judiciary Research Center at the Beijing Institute of Technology, called the proposed change a positive sign of reform. Xu has long been an advocate of abolishing the labor camp system.
Meng said the labor camp system would “cease to be used,” instead of scrapped, a person who attended the conference said.
Xu said this meant officials planned to change the law and then formally end the system’s use. “After the Illegal Acts Discipline Law is passed,” he said, “the labor camp system can be formally abolished.”
The NPC is deliberating a draft of the law, which is intended to create a new corrections system. A pilot program was introduced in four provinces last year.
The labor camp system dates back to a 1957 decision by the NPC, which did not set sentencing limits. Some prisoners have served as long as twenty years.
An amendment by the State Council in 1979 capped sentences at four years. But in practice, police have the power to re-sentence suspects.
In 1982, the State Council specified that the system would target “criminals coming from rural areas to conduct illegal activities in cities, along railways and in major factories and mines.” The scope was later expanded to include drug users and sex workers.