(AP) A southern Chinese province has suspended labor camp sentences, becoming the first in the country to take steps to phase out the much-criticized system.
The move, which is expected to extend to the rest of China this year, is considered a key step in reforming China's judicial system. Critics have condemned the labor camp system as arbitrary because it allows police to lock up government critics and other defendants for up to four years without trial.
Chinese state media reported Wednesday that Yunnan's top law enforcement official Meng Sutie announced that the province will no longer send people to labor camps on grounds of threatening national security, petitioning by causing unrest and smearing the image of officials.
The province also will suspend labor camp sentences for people charged with other offenses such as drug use and prostitution, Meng said.
Those in the camps will be released after completing their terms, said Meng, as quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency.
We believe this is a good thing, and we raise both our hands to show our support, said Pu Zhiqiang, a Chinese lawyer who represents Ren Jianyu, a local official sentenced to two years in a labor camp after criticizing the government.
Ren's case fueled calls to abolish China's labor camps, which were initially set up in the 1950s to detain accused counterrevolutionaries or other critics of the Communist government but were later expanded to punish prostitutes, drug addicts and other minor criminals, as well as petitioners seeking to redress their grievances.
The labor camp system has been widely condemned by lawyers and human rights activists as outdated and open to abuse, especially in locking away those who criticize officials or government policies.
In January, the ruling Communist Party Politics and Law Committee head Meng Jianzhu said China would stop handing down labor camp sentences this year but that the proposal must first be approved by China's legislature, the National People's Congress, which will meet in March.
Yan Zhichan, director of Department of Justice in the southern province of Guangdong, said at the end of January that her province had made preparatory work to end the labor camp system once this is approved nationally.