China to reform controversial forced labour camps

BEIJING - China will reform its controversial system of forced labour camps this year, state media reported on Monday, which would mark a first step toward legal reform promised by new Communist Party chief Xi Jinping.

China's "re-education through labour" system, in place since 1957, empowers police to sentence petty criminals to up to four years' confinement without going through the courts, a system that critics say undermines the rule of law and is used against political activists.

The announcement by state news agency Xinhua contradicted earlier media reports that cited domestic security head Meng Jianzhu as saying China would scrap the system. Those reports were removed from media websites without an explanation.

"The Chinese government will this year push the reform of its controversial re-education through labour system, according to a national political and legal work conference on Monday," Xinhua reported.

State broadcaster CCTV had said earlier on its microblog site, citing the party's newly appointed Political and Legal Affairs Committee head, Meng, as saying: "Use of the re-education through labour system will end this year, after approval from the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress."

The National People's Congress refers to China's largely rubberstamp parliament session held annually in March.

The Justice Ministry did not respond to a faxed inquiry by Reuters.

The labour camp system has come under fire from intellectuals, rights lawyers and activists, and even state media.

"If it can be abolished this year, I think it's an extremely important step toward rule of law," He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University, told Reuters.

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