China hints at reforming labour camp system

File photo: A crime suspect being handcuffed in China Those with alleged minor offences can be sent to China's labour camps

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China is working to revise its system of labour camps, where people can be jailed for up to four years without trial, a senior judicial official says.

Jiang Wei, head of judicial system reform, said the camps had an important role in keeping social order but there was a wide consensus for reform.

China has 350 such camps with more than 150,000 inmates, the latest government figures released in 2008 say.

The network has long been criticised for human rights abuses.

Many inmates are held for alleged offences such as prostitution and drug possession.

The system started in the 1950s based on the Soviet Gulag - millions were jailed in labour camps for political crimes during Chairman Mao's time.

Mr Jiang's comments follow growing public criticism of the camps.

He told a news conference the camps played "an important role in maintaining our country's social order".

'[But] there is a widespread agreement in the society that reforming the re-education-through-labour system is needed," he said.

"Relative authorities have done plenty of research and heard advice from experts and legislators. They are now working on a plan for the reform."

China's labour camps are not as prominent as they once were, the BBC's Martin Patience in Beijing says.

But critics see the "re-education-through-labour" system as an easy way for officials to silence dissidents, as well as those from groups like Falun Gong, the banned spiritual movement, our correspondent adds.

There was a public outcry this year after a mother in Hunan province was sent to a labour camp. She had been campaigning for tougher penalties for men convicted of abducting, raping and prostituting her 11-year-old daughter.

She was released after a week following a public campaign.

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