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(New York) – The Chinese government should abolish the Custody and Education system used to detain primarily sex workers for up to two years without trial, Human Rights Watch said in a report newly translated into Chinese that was released today. China has an estimated 183 Custody and Education centers holding more than 15,000 inmates, most of them women. China should also decriminalize adult voluntary sex work.

On June 7, 2014, a group of over 40 scholars issued a public letter urging the National People’s Congress Standing Committee to abolish the Custody and Education system. The scholars said that Custody and Education has no basis in Chinese law and is outdated.

“Public pressure on the Chinese government to change this policy is growing,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “It’s high time Beijing abolished all forms of arbitrary detention and makes genuine progress towards fair trials.”

In November 2013, the Chinese government abolished a similar form of arbitrary detention, called Re-education Through Labor (RTL), under which police could hold drug users, government critics, religious practitioners, petitioners, and others accused of minor crimes for up to four years without trial. Since then, however, some RTL centers have been repurposed as Compulsory Drug Detoxification Centers and continue to detain without trial people accused of drug use.

Because RTL, Custody and Education, and Compulsory Drug Detox centers deprive people of their liberty without access to a fair trial, they constitute arbitrary detention under international law. The Chinese government continues to use several other official and unofficial forms of arbitrary detention.

Prior to the publication of the June 7, 2014 public letter on Custody and Education, a group of 27 lawyers submitted a request under China’s Open Government Information Regulations, pressing the government to disclose information about these facilities. The scholars’ public letter and the lawyers’ request were made after news broke on May 31 that a popular actor, Huang Haibo, had been detained for six months in a Custody and Education center for “soliciting prostitutes,” a decision that has drawn widespread public criticism.

Human Rights Watch is supporting the scholars’ and lawyers’ efforts by releasing in Chinese the 43-page report, “‘Swept Away’: Abuses Against Sex Workers in China,” which addresses abuses in Custody and Education facilities and in the community. The report, published in English in May 2013, documents abuses by the police against female sex workers in Beijing, including torture, beatings, physical assaults, arbitrary detentions, and fines, as well as a failure to investigate crimes against sex workers by clients, bosses, and state agents. The report also documents abuses by public health agencies, such as coercive HIV testing, privacy infringements, and mistreatment by health officials. China has an estimated four to six million sex workers, the overwhelming majority of them women.

Under Chinese law, all aspects of sex work – including solicitation, sale, and purchase of sex – are illegal. Most sex work-related offenses are administrative rather than criminal offenses under domestic law and most are punished with fines and short periods of police custody or administrative detention. The law nonetheless allows for long administrative detention sentences of up to two years in Custody and Education centers for those considered repeat offenders.

The Custody and Education system is supposed to provide sex workers and clients with educational support, including literacy and vocational training; health monitoring, with testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs); and work experience. Previous research shows that, in practice, Custody and Education entails forced labor and subjects people sent to these centers to physical and sexual violence.

The rights of sex workers have been under increasing attention since February 2014, when the central and provincial government staged another high-profile crackdown on the sex trade in Dongguan, a city in Guangdong Province, after the state-run CCTV aired an expose about it. By mid-June, police officers had investigated 947,000 entertainment venues and put over 3,000 people under criminal detention for organizing the sale of sex work, according to state media reports. It is unclear though how many have been sent to Custody and Education or other forms of arbitrary detention during the Guangdong drive. The campaign is now being carried out across the country.

Human Rights Watch supports the decriminalization of voluntary, adult sex work. The imposition of punitive penalties for such activities violates a number of internationally recognized human rights, including the rights to personal autonomy and privacy. Failure to uphold the rights of sex workers leaves them subject to discrimination, abuse, exploitation, and undercuts public health policies.

“These high-profile, periodic crackdowns serve little purpose except to put sex workers at greater risk of police brutality and arbitrary detention,” Richardson said. “Authorities should instead focus their energies on abolishing Custody and Education and decriminalizing voluntary, adult sex work.”

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