As a top Chinese official again vowed to do away with the controversial "re-education through labor" system, the husband of a pregnant woman in northeast China says the authorities are refusing to release her from labor camp as required by current laws.
Government legal adviser Chen Jiping said China's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), would likely approve the abolition of the re-education labor camps at its annual meeting in March, official media reported.
According to the English-language China Daily newspaper, the changes are "imminent."
It said legal experts attending a government legal affairs conference on Jan. 7 had also committed to restricting the use of the punishment before March, which would mean finding alternative penalties until then.
"Optional penalties, such as community correction, which allows minor offenders to receive correctional education [in] a local community, enables law enforcement officers to punish wrongdoers through other means," the paper quoted Chen as saying.
The paper said that people who would have been sent to labor camp by police might now go to court, receive an administrative sentence, or a fine.
Meanwhile, a petitioner from the northern port city of Dalian, who is currently serving a one-year re-education through labor sentence handed down last August, hit out at the authorities for making her
work nine or more hours a day in the sixth month of her pregnancy.
Liu Yuling, 49, was sent to the Masanjia women's labor camp in Liaoning province after she was found petitioning in the vicinity of premier Wen Jiabao's Beijing home.
"She's six months pregnant," Liu's husband Wang Zhen said in an interview on Monday. "She is beginning to show it now, and the baby's moving about, so it's obvious."
"But she is still detained in the labor camp."
Wang said he had asked the authorities to send her to hospital for a check-up, but had received no response.
According to the Sichuan-based Tianwang rights website, Liu was sentenced to one year's "re-education through labor" after she was found near Premier Wen's residence at Chinese New Year, for "illegal petitioning."
Wang said the authorities had ignored several requests for Liu's recent test results.
"She has told those in charge a number of times, and asked to go to hospital for a check-up, so they sent her to the clinic, which is OK, but now they won't let us see the test results."
"The labor camp people say she's just fat, and that she's not pregnant."
Repeated calls to the Masanjia labor camp offices went unanswered during office hours on Monday.
"They are doing clothes manufacturing in there, sewing things," Wang said. "She has to work between nine and eleven hours every day."
Beijing-based rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said that, under current Chinese law on re-education through labor, anyone found to be pregnant during their sentence must serve it outside the labor camp.
"This rule was made on humanitarian principles...and she should be allowed to return home," he said.
"They should complain to the state prosecution service about this."
Tianwang's founder and rights activist Huang Qi said large numbers of people currently serving terms in labor camp are petitioners, people who pursue complaints against the government through official channels, often for many years and to no avail.
"The authorities should stick to the relevant rules and regulations, and release Liu Yuling immediately," Huang said.
"At the same time, they should also abolish the entire re-education through labor system and release all petitioners and rights activists from labor camps," he said.
Huang said Tianwang had already found a rights lawyer to help Wang and Liu pursue their complaint against her treatment.
The official promises to abolish re-education through labor come after a prolonged campaign by lawyers, former inmates, and rights activists to eradicate it.
But rights activists and overseas groups have given a doubtful welcome to official pronouncements so far, with some saying it may be too soon to celebrate.
Some 160,000 Chinese people are held without trial in 350 labor camp-style facilities at any given time, government figures show.
Sentences can be handed down by police-controlled administrative committees for a maximum of three years, with the option to extend by one year.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.