A jail by another name: China labor camps now drug detox centers

Mon Dec 2, 2013 7:18am EST
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By John Ruwitch

KUNMING, China (Reuters) - Li Zhongying was freed from a Chinese labor camp ahead of schedule in September because, guards told her, the government was scrapping 're-education through labor', a heavily criticized penal system created in the 1950s.

Several hundred other inmates were not so lucky, she said. Like Li, they were held without trial and forced to do factory work under what she called "cruel" conditions. They remained because they were drug offenders, she told Reuters.

Many of China's re-education through labor camps, instead of being abolished in line with a ruling Communist Party announcement this month, are being turned into compulsory drug rehabilitation centers where inmates can be incarcerated for two years or more without trial.

Human rights activists and freed inmates said drug offenders were still being forced to do factory work, as has been the practice under the re-education through labor system, colloquially known as 'laojiao'.

New York-based Human Rights Watch estimates more than 60 percent of the 160,000 people in labor camps at the start of the year were there for drug offenses. Those people were unlikely to see any change in their treatment, it said.

"The drug detox people are doing exactly the same work," said Li, who spent 19 months in a labor camp in Kunming, the capital of southern Yunnan province.

Police caught Li in Beijing early last year trying to petition the government over a grievance that dated back to the mid-1990s. They sent her home to Yunnan, where she was sentenced without trial to 21 months.

Li, speaking from Beijing, said she worked at a biscuit factory inside the camp for up to 15 hours a day.   Continued...

Iron wire fencing is seen outside a labour camp in Kunming, Yunnan province, November 22, 2013. REUTERS/John Ruwitch