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China hints at ending its labor prison camps

By Alexis Lai and Steven Jiang, CNN
January 8, 2013 -- Updated 1337 GMT (2137 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • China may terminate controversial system of labor prison camps this year
  • State media reported most senior law enforcement official proposed to stop using system
  • Petty offenders jailed up to 4 years in labor camps without judicial hearing
  • Both human rights activists and government say reforms necessary

(CNN) -- Hints emerged Monday that China may terminate its controversial system of labor prison camps this year.

The proposal to stop using the system was put forth at a working conference by the country's most senior law enforcement official, Meng Jianzhu, according to a post by the state-run CCTV on its Sina Weibo microblogging account. Meng is the secretary of the Chinese Communist Party's Central Politics and Law Commission.

The proposal requires the approval of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress-- the country's legislature-- although it is largely a rubber-stamp formality.

Opinion: Corruption as China's top priority

The CCTV post was later deleted, as well as a post quoting it by the state-run Xinhua news agency. A post on the topic by the People's Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, also disappeared on Weibo.

However, Xinhua later wrote that the system would be reformed (albeit with no mention of its abolishment) on its English Twitter account, and English and Chinese news websites.

Read more: Censorship protest a test for reform-minded China

Under the "laodong jiaoyang" or "re-education through labor" system, petty offenders, such as thieves, prostitutes and drug abusers, are imprisoned for up to four years in labor camps without a judicial hearing. The United Nations Human Rights Council estimates there are 190,000 inmates in 320 such centers across the country.

Critics say the camps, which fall outside of the formal prison system, are often misused to persecute government dissidents, including intellectuals, human rights activists, and followers of banned spiritual groups like the Falun Gong.

Two high-profile cases that became public last year generated a massive backlash, forcing the government to address the thorny issue. In one case, a mother was sentenced to 1.5 years in a labor camp for "disrupting social order" after she repeatedly petitioned officials to execute men convicted of raping her 11-year-old daughter. In another case, a young village official was sent to a labor camp for two years for retweeting Weibo posts deemed seditious.

Recent official sentiment has indicated that reform, if not abolishment of the system, is needed. The camps date back to the 1950s when the new Communist regime sought to silence its enemies to consolidate its power.

Read more: Chinese journalists in rare protest against censorship

In October, a senior official in charge of judicial system reform acknowledged that reforms were necessary and underway, according to Xinhua.

"The system was designed to maintain social order, prevent and reduce crimes by reforming people who committed minor offenses but were not punishable by the penal code," the Xinhua editorial went on to say. "It did play an important role in maintaining social order in specific periods, however, with the development of society and the legal system, its defects have become more and more evident."

Read more: China's tightened traffic rules stir debate

CNN's Jaime FlorCruz contributed to this report.

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