Guangzhou announced on Friday that it would set up two detention centres for petty criminals, but stressed that these were not a substitute for re-education through labour – a system that was abolished late last year .
Wan Yunfeng, presiding judge of the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court, said the formation of the detention centres did not constitute a revival of the labour camp system but would help in plans for fast-track trials for those involved in minor offences.
The centres will be part of an experiment to introduce speedy trials for cases involving lighter sentences. Wan said Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong province, northwest of Hong Kong, would be the testing ground for this new system.
He added that the centres had been in the works since October.
According to the city’s politics and law commission, cases that are eligible for speedy trials involve crimes punishable by less than three years in jail, including dangerous driving, theft, fraud, robbery, extortion, blackmail and troublemaking.
The new system is only applicable to cases in which defendants have been charged with only one offence and pleaded guilty.
Under the new system, the judiciary procedures would be simplified and there is a time limit for courts to finish trials – seven days if the defendant is not detained by police, and 15 days if the defendant is in custody.
The first speedy trial was held on Friday in Nansha district and it took just 10 minutes. The defendant was sentenced to one month in detention for drink-driving.
The city is preparing a centre for male offenders and was turning a women’s drug rehabilitation centre into a detention centre for women.
In November, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee formally abolished the 56-year-old re-education system, which allowed authorities to sentence people to up to four years of forced labour without trial.
But Wan said the new detention centres would be different because they involve formal trials and are applicable to those who broke the law. By contrast, labour camp was an administrative punishment and people could be sent there without necessarily breaking the law.
Deputy presiding judge Zhuang Huiting said the process of sending convicts to the new detention centres were more transparent because formal judiciary procedures were involved.
“The general direction towards replacing administrative detention with courts is positive,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. But Bequelin said he was concerned the guilty plea requirement would incentivise forced confessions, which were already a widespread problem.
Anu Kultalahti, a researcher at Amnesty International, said, “There is still cause for concern over the fate of those people who were in the past sent to re-education through labour for their political views and religious beliefs. People involved in these sensitive cases can still be sent to other forms of arbitrary detention, such as legal education centres, and sex workers continue to be sent to ‘custody and education’.”