(New York) –The Chinese government’s announcement today that it will sometime this year “stop using” the notorious Re-Education Through Labor (RTL) system is a rare positive response to the system’s growing unpopularity, Human Rights Watch said today. While suspending use of RTL would be an important step, the government should aspire to fully abolish the RTL system.
“This decision, if it truly put an end to Re-Education Through Labor, would be an indisputable step towards establishing rule of law in China,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Courageous activists and ordinary citizens have long fought to end this system of arbitrary detention.”
On January 7, Meng Jianzhu, head of the powerful Chinese Communist Party’s Political and Legal Committee, which oversees China’s law enforcement authorities and the court system, announced at a meeting of government officials that the government will “stop using” the RTL system by the end of 2013, according to domestic media reports. The decision will come into effect after it is approved by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature, these reports said. This will suspend, and possibly end, the administrative detention system, which is controlled by the police, not the courts, and which has been in place since the 1950s. According to official statistics, approximately 160,000 Chinese people are held without trial in 350 RTL facilities at any given time.
In recent years the government has considered replacing RTL with a detention system that would essentially leave intact key features of the existing mechanism: an administrative detention system under the control of the Public Security Bureau that would exist parallel to the formal criminal system, allowing long-term detentions without the benefit of a trial and the due process of law. Reports suggest that a revised system would be known by a different name, would establish a maximum sentence, and in theory would allow some procedural rights, such as access to counsel.
Public outrage over RTL cases has grown in recent months, particularly about RTL punishments given to individuals who complain about the government and who express their opinions online, including Tang Hui, a mother sent to RTL in 2012 for complaining to the government about the rape of her young daughter. In 2012, a senior official responsible for judicial system reforms acknowledged that there was “consensus” for “reforming the RTL system.” Other recent government decisions, such as removing the head of the Ministry of Public Security as a permanent member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo in 2012, may also reflect central government awareness of public anger over the impunity enjoyed by the domestic security apparatus.
Over the summer of 2012, authorities announced a pilot scheme in four cities to test out reforms to the system. Little is known about these “reforms” except that the name of the system has been changed to “Education and Correction.” It is therefore unclear, after the government “stops using” the system, whether it will be reformed, abolished, or replaced by another administrative detention system with a different name.
Under the RTL system, individuals can be detained and subjected to forced labor for up to four years on the decision of the Public Security Bureau alone. According to the Chinese government, the system is designed to reform minor offenders, such as drug users and prostitutes, through work.
Human Rights Watch neither considers such detention “therapeutic” nor consistent with human rights, as it deprives those detained of the right to a trial, including the right to confront witnesses before an independent judge with the assistance of counsel, as well as the right to independent judicial review of a detention decision and remedy. In practice, the system has frequently been abused by the police to punish human rights defenders, petitioners seeking redress for abuses, and political dissidents. Detainees are often forced to work in harsh and dangerous conditions. They are given hard quotas to complete on a daily basis, and those who fail to meet these targets, as well as those who are considered disobedient, are in some cases subject to physical abuse, cruel inhuman or degrading treatment, or even torture.
Human Rights Watch urged the Chinese government to abolish the RTL system entirely and determine new laws that establish a system to punish minor crimes, one that is consistent with the Chinese Constitution as well as its international human rights obligations. The judiciary – not the police –should be responsible for considering charges, determining guilt, and assigning appropriate punishment. Individuals accused must have access to court proceedings, the right to assistance of counsel of choice, and all other fair trial guarantees. The Chinese government should also explore alternative measures other than detention for minor offenses, such as compulsory community service. In addition, the Chinese government should take measures to eradicate torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment in its detention facilities and prosecute those responsible.
“Cosmetic changes to the system or cutting down the amount of time served in administrative detention will do nothing to end RTL’s notorious abuses, and might only further entrench the system,” said Richardson. “Only abolition will suffice, and it is time that the new administration of Xi Jinping takes steps towards ensuring due process.”