The Chinese government has closed a handful of large "re-education through labor" camps, reports The Telegraph. Visits to six labor camps outside Beijing suggest that four of the six are closed and the remaining two converted for other purposes.
Interviews with former prisoners and Labor Camp Bureau officials confirm closures. The change is part of legislation passed by the National People’s Congress in late December. The National People’s Congress also ended China’s one-child policy in that same session.
According to Human Rights Watch, there were roughly 160,000 inmates in labor camps at the start of 2013. The system existed largely outside of the country’s larger legal system. Many prisoners were individuals who spoke out against the government, those who “associate” with lawbreakers and others that are not legally considered criminals.
The RTL system allowed “offenders” to be imprisoned for up to four years without trail or legal counsel. Agencies and individuals were allowed to suggest anyone for re-education to the Re-education Through Labor Management Committees, which operated locally.
The closures were relatively quiet considering the PR opportunity they create for the Chinese government. Many officials reported to the Telegraph anonymously and refused to reveal specifics about the closures.
One imprisoned woman told the Telegraph she was “quite puzzled” and not told she would be released when officials called her downstairs to see a visitor and let her free without further information. Another said he was driven from a labor camp in Inner Mongolia to a train station and taken home at 3 a.m.
Critics argue the closures only mean detainees will be moved to other camps or secret prisons. “It now appears that it may only be a cosmetic change just to avert the public outcry over the abusive RTL system where torture was rife,” said Corinna-Barbara Francis, Amnesty International’s China Researcher. AI says its research shows authorities are using other channels to punish the same types of people.
“From a legislative point of view, the labor camp system has been abolished,” human rights lawyer Li Fangping told The Telegraph, “But we need to worry about whether black prisons and mental wards will be used to detain protesters.”