Beijing: A southern Chinese province has suspended labour camp sentences, becoming the first in the country to take steps to phase out the much-criticised system.
The move, which is expected to extend to the rest of China this year, is considered a key step towards reforms in China`s judicial system.
Critics have condemned the labour 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 yesterday reported that Yunnan`s top law enforcement official Meng Sutie announced that the province will no longer send people to labour camps on grounds of threatening national security, petitioning by causing unrest and smearing the image of officials.
The province also will suspend labour camp sentences for people charged with other offences 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 labour camp for criticising the government.
Ren`s case fuelled calls to abolish China`s labour camps, which were initially set up in the 1950s to detain accused counter-revolutionaries 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 redress of their grievances.
In January, the ruling Communist Party Politics and Law Committee head Meng Jianzhu had said that China would stop handing down labour camp sentences this year although the proposal needed to be first approved by China`s legislature, the National People`s Congress, which meets 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 labour camp system once the same is approved nationally.