The recent overturning of a "re-education through labor" sentence served on a Chinese political cartoonist highlights growing calls among lawyers and rights activists for the entire labor camp system to be abolished.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, speaking after the decision to "cancel" the two-year sentence handed to his client Peng Hong in central China's Chongqing municipality this week, said that irregularities in the way the case was handled showed that the entire system is deeply flawed.
The sentence was handed down during the rule of the city's once-powerful politician Bo Xilai in a decision which is likely to spark a wave of similar appeals in the wake of Bo's ouster.
"The re-education through labor system violates international human rights covenants, to which China is a signatory," Pu told RFA's Mandarin service in a recent interview. "At the same time, it violates Article 37 of China's Constitution and China's Criminal Code."
"Re-education-through-labor" (RTL) sentences are administrative, although largely controlled by the police, and can be handed down for up to a maximum of three years, without the need for a trial."
"[The system] places long-term limitations on the rights of citizens to individual freedom," Pu said. "It has no basis in law."
Pu is one of a growing number of lawyers who have begun to speak out openly against the RTL system, which is often used to silence people who are regarded as troublemakers by China's ruling Communist Party.
Such "troublemakers" increasingly include ordinary Chinese who persist in trying to file complaints through official channels about alleged wrongdoing by local governments and police.
Pu estimated that more than 10,000 people were sent to RTL camps in Chongqing during the rule of now-ousted Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai and his "anti-crime" campaigns, which some have likened to the political violence of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) era.
"Some of them are regular RTL cases, but others are cases in which the police haven't been able to produce enough evidence to the prosecution service to justify further detaining a person, and the person is dealt with through RTL rather than being released, as they should have been," Pu said.
"[Chongqing] accounted for around 20 percent of nationwide RTL cases."
Last month, a group of 10 Chinese lawyers sent an open letter to China’s ministries of justice and public security, calling for “adjustments” to the RTL system, receiving wide coverage in China's tightly controlled official media.
The letter was prompted by the case of a woman from the central province of Hunan, Tang Hui, who was sent to labor camp for challenging the prison sentences of men convicted of raping her daughter.
The authorities have also rolled out trial "reforms" of the RTL system in four Chinese cities, but rights groups say any changes are likely to be cosmetic.
"Lacking tangible judicial or legislative changes, the pilot work is being organized by public security bureaus, which manage the controversial RTL system, and involves other government bodies and agencies," the overseas-based China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group said in an emailed statement at the time.
However ineffectual they may turn out to be, the trial “reforms” could well be a response to public outcries against RTL, as human rights lawyers and activists—and, increasingly, petitioners sent to RTL—have long pushed for the system’s dismantling, CHRD said.
'Everyone is against it'
Meanwhile, Zhang Yuanxing, a rights lawyer based in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang said he doesn't believe that abolishing the system entirely will make China more unstable.
"The backlash against the RTL system is becoming clearer and clearer to see," Zhang said. "Everyone is against it."
"In actual fact, delegates to the National People's Congress call for its abolition every year, and more and more ordinary citizens are calling for this every year as well," he said.
"Lawyers and experts have brought it up too, but it's like throwing pebbles into the ocean; nothing happens."
No official announcements have yet been made about Bo, who is under investigation for "serious violations" of Party discipline, although analysts say the Party leadership will want to finish the job of laying to rest the biggest political scandal in decades ahead of the Party Congress, for which no date has been announced yet.
Last week, authorities in the southwestern city of Chengdu formally charged Bo's former police chief Wang Lijun with defection and abuse of official power, as well as "bending the law for selfish ends, defection, abuse of power, and bribe-taking," the official Xinhua news agency reported, citing official sources.
Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.