China will stop handing down labour camp sentences this year under a system that allowed police to lock up government critics and other defendants for up to four years without trial, the country's top law enforcement official said Monday.
The move would be a key step in reforming China's judicial system, though details remained unclear, including what would become of existing "reeducation through labour" camps and their current inmates and whether this presages a new system involving court hearings before defendants can be sent to such facilities.
The comments by Communist Party Politics and Law Committee head Meng Jianzhu were not officially announced, but were reported by Chen Dongsheng, a bureau chief for the Legal Daily, the official newspaper of China's Justice Ministry.
The proposal must first be sent to China's legislature, the National People's Congress, for approval, Chen quoted Meng as saying.
Chen said he heard Meng make the pledge at a conference carried on closed-circuit television. China's supreme court and other government offices declined to comment, although the respected independent magazine Caixin said it had confirmed Chen's report with an unidentified conference participant.
"Meng said the reeducation system had played a useful role in the past but conditions had now changed," Chen told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
The labour camp system originally was used to detain accused counterrevolutionaries or other critics of the Communist government, but was later expanded to punish prostitutes, drug addicts and other minor criminals. Authorities sentenced large numbers of Falun Gong adherents to the camps after banning the meditation movement as an evil cult in the late 1990s.
The labour camp system has been widely condemned by lawyers and human rights activists as outdated and open to abuse, especially in locking away those who criticize officials or government policies.
China has 310 labour camps holding about 310,000 prisoners and employing 100,000 staff, according to state broadcaster CCTV.