The Chinese government has announced plans to reform the country's "re-education" labor camps where prisoners can be sent without trial. The news comes just months after online controversy when a mother seeking justice for her raped daughter was herself sentenced to 18 months in a camp.
The AP reports that Jiang Wei, the head of a government committee on judicial reform, announced the news at a conference today. The Global Times has published the full text of some proposed reforms to the judicial system online, however, the exact details of the reforms remain vague — Jiang reportedly told reporters to consult the “relevant government departments”, but then declined to tell them what the department would be.
Under current laws Chinese citizens can be sent without trial to a labor camp for three to four years without trial. The system is known as laojiao, or "re-education through labor'. In 2005 the BBC reported that 300,000 people were thought to be kept in over 300 camps, though exact figures have been hard to come by — more recent UN figures put the number at closer to 190,000. The system was developed in the 1950s for political prisoners, but has widened in recent years and is often used to punish minor offenses — Hong Kong University legal scholar Fu Hualing has noted that the term laojiao “is elastic enough to include most, if not all, offenses”.
The movement for reform seems to have gathered steam this year after the case of Tang Hui, a Chinese mother who was sentenced to 18 months without trial in August. Her crime? Campaigning for tougher penalties on seven men who abducted and raped her 7-year-old daughter. A statement from local officials justified the sentence by saying that Tang had attempted to block the cars at the courthouse and at officials' homes, and her actions “severely disturbed order in workplaces and in society, which had an extremely terrible social impact.”
Like many recent scandals in China, Tang's case spread quickly online. Soon even state entities like People's Daily newspaper were criticizing the decision. Tang was released in September as the outcry grew, but it was already too late. The Guardian points to one online poll (answered by 20,000 Sina Weibo users) that found 98% were in favor of reforming the labor camp system, and in mid-September a group of 10 prominent lawyers sent a letter to the government warning that "the punishment can lead to abuses of power", according to China Daily.
While the details remain vague, and reports of reform have followed the system for years, the announcement today does appear to be another sign that the Chinese government is willing to listen to public opinion.
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