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Projects hint at reform of mainland's re-education through labour policy

Re-education through labour on the mainland is unlikely to be scrapped any time soon, but four pilot projects hint at reform of the controversial penal system

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 September, 2012, 3:19am

Pilot projects in four mainland cities could foreshadow a scaling back of re-education through labour, the five-decade-old punishment widely criticised as unconstitutional and frequently abused.

The four cities - Nanjing in Jiangsu , Lanzhou in Gansu , Zhengzhou in Henan and Jinan in Shandong - are piloting an "education and correction of violations" system to replace re-education through labour, which allows police to lock up anyone they see fit for up to four years without trial, China National Radio has reported.

Nanjing has formed a task force to set up an education and correction of violations committee, headed by a deputy mayor who is also the city's police chief. Other members include officials from the bureaus of justice and civil affairs, the courts and the procuratorate.

"It can be deemed a loosening of control of the forced labour system," said lawyer Li Fangping , who, along with nine other lawyers, sent the Department of Justice an open letter last month calling for a more transparent hearing process for re-education through labour.

"The reform would scrap forced labour and replace it with education in the community for some offenders. A total loss of freedom changed to restricted personal freedom - it's progress."

The re-education through labour regime was introduced by Mao Zedong in 1957 to deal with petty criminals and was nearly phased out during the Cultural Revolution. However, it was reintroduced in the 1980s and has expanded ever since, often being abused for political ends or the silencing of dissent.

The approval, review or postponement of terms of re-education through labour are meant to be handled by local re-education through labour management committees, staffed by police and officials from the bureaus of civil affairs and labour, but such decisions more usually fall to the police, whose powers are unchecked.

The accused are not arrested or tried and there is no defence lawyer to represent them.

"The description of their offences is extremely over-simplistic, running to just 30 to 50 words," Li said.

In theory, he said, those who are sent to labour camps can appeal to a court but "few orders are overturned unless there is enormous social pressure".

Li said those in a labour camp should receive education tailored to the offences they have committed and the labour they are assigned to could vary more - from handicrafts to hard labour.

The regulation on re-education through labour stipulates that offenders should study no less than three hours a day and labour no more than six hours a day. But a recent report in the Nanfeng Chuang (South Wind Window) magazine quoted Chen Jifeng, from the department of re-education through labour at the Central Institute for Correctional Police, as saying they actually labour for an average of 76.5 hours a week, while receiving only four hours' education.

The magazine also quoted a figure from the Department of Justice, which said in 2008 there were 350 labour camps on the mainland.

Li said he would like to see the system abolished altogether, but reform would be more realistic as the forced labour system had become an efficient tool for "maintaining social stability" and was something that not even top officials would want to uproot.

In 2008, ahead of the Beijing Olympics, two elderly women who had been forcibly evicted from their homes in 2001 - 79-year-old Wu Dianyuan and 77-year-old Wang Xiuying - were ordered to undergo re-education through labour after applying for permission to protest in a government-approved demonstration zone. In the end, they were not sent to a labour camp, but were kept under house arrest.

Last year, Ren Jianyu, a university graduate who was about to be appointed a village official, was sent to a camp for two years for copying more than 100 items of "negative information" and publishing them online.

There was widespread outrage across the mainland last month when Tang Hui , the mother of a rape victim in Yongzhou , Hunan, who petitioned for heavier punishment of the men involved in the crime, was sentenced to 18 months in a labour camp for "disturbing social order and exerting a negative impact on society". Tang was released shortly afterwards but her treatment rekindled public calls for the abolition of the outdated regime.

An internet poll by Xinhua found nearly 87 per cent of respondents said it was time the system was abolished.

Chen Zhonglin , a law professor at Chongqing University and a National People's Congress deputy, proposed reforming the system eight years ago. "[Doing so] is not only the wish of legal academics and legislators," he said. "Every party involved in this regime wants it to be reformed."

He said the biggest problem with the re-education through labour system was that it contradicted the principles of China's constitution and the Legislation Law, which says personal freedoms should only be restricted by a law, not a regulation.

The process that decides who should be "re-educated" also lacked transparency, Chen said, and police were "both player and referee", making it impossible to ensure the system was just.

A proposal to draft a law on correction of violations was listed on the legislative agenda in 2005, but progress has been slow.

In 2007, 69 law professionals petitioned for a review of the re-education through labour system. Two years later, Chen was consulted by the NPC Standing Committee's Legislative Affairs Commission on the details of a correction of violations law.

"Consensus was achieved in quite a few areas, such as the kinds of people suitable for re-education through labour, the term of labour and the process," Chen said. "I believe the pilot scheme will cover such areas."

But agreement could not be reached on which agency would take charge of the new system, and the reform process stalled in 2010.

Chen said it was still possible to experiment in areas where there was agreement and see how the reform went before drafting national legislation.

He said the parties involved had agreed the term of labour should be six to 18 months and should be applied to petty criminals who were repeat offenders when other forms of punishment were not appropriate.

"Those guilty of only minor violations of the law, not severe enough to be prosecuted, should be suitable for the labour camp," Chen said. "It can only be applied to people who have repeated violations, having been put under administrative detention at least twice."

He said forced labour should be applied with "extreme caution" in cases involving dissidents. "It is not improper to send repeat petitioners to re-education, but it must be determined whether the petition was without reason and the whole process must be open and transparent."

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