Beijing, China - China's announcement that it would abolish its infamous practice of "re-education through labour" last month raised hopes for a major step forward for human rights, but doubts have been raised whether the move will signal any real change in how the country administers justice and handles political dissent.
A new report released on Tuesday by Amnesty International details a wide range of human rights abuses that routinely occur in re-education camps, many in clear violation of China's own laws.
Looking at places where the punishment system is already beginning to be dismantled, Amnesty's findings also suggest that extra-judicial detention of political dissidents and other undesirables will likely continue unabated through other, sometimes hidden, means.
China has used the nationwide system of re-education through labour - also known as RTL - since the 1950s as a way to punish and ostensibly reform minor offenders outside of the regular judicial system. Called laojiao, police can send individuals to camps for a maximum of four years, without formal arrest or trial.
A male guard hit my face again and again with handcuffs and with his fists. They tried to pry open my mouth … and took turns smashing my mouth and teeth with metal ladles.
China operated 351 labour camps nationwide holding about 50,000 people as of 2012, according to government statistics, though unofficial estimates of the number of detainees run from 100,000 to 450,000.
Amnesty highlighted the case of Zhang Lianying, 52, who was sent three times to a RTL camp for refusing to give up her religious beliefs. Zhang said she was subjected to "rack" torture for days at a time, often naked, and was not given food and water or allowed to use the toilet or sleep.
"A male guard hit my face again and again with handcuffs and with his fists," Zhang told the London-based rights group. "They tried to pry open my mouth … and took turns smashing my mouth and teeth with metal ladles … Male and female guards grabbed my hair and banged my head against the wall and a table."
A request for comment from a Ministry of Justice spokeswoman was not answered by publication time.
While those detained in re-education camps range from petty criminals to political dissidents, the Amnesty report focused on two groups that make up a large percentage of detainees, and are often singled out for particularly brutal treatment: petitioners who appeal to higher authorities to redress perceived injustices by local officials, as well as followers of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
Both groups have been labeled by the government as major sources of social instability, and local officials are regularly given strict quotas of petitioners to be dissuaded from pursuing their claims, along with Falun Gong practitioners to be "transformed" into non-believers.
Public criticism of the system has grown within China over the last two years, reaching its peak last summer when the case of Tang Hui was made public. Tang had been sentenced to one and a half years in a labor camp by authorities in Hunan province after petitioning for harsher punishment for seven men who had abducted and gang-raped her teenage daughter. She was later released after the resulting outcry.
Since then, the government repeatedly said a major reform of re-education through labor would come soon, with a handful of provinces already beginning to phase out the penal system. In January, Guangdong province announced plans to end its use, followed by a similar announcement the following month by Yunnan province.
China framed the RTL reform declaration last month at the Communist Party's Third Plenum as a major step towards strengthening the justice system and rule of law.
|Inmates work on sewing machines in Chongqing [GALLO/GETTY]
"It is not good for human rights protection to deprive a citizen of his personal freedom without a court proceeding," the official Xinhua news agency quoted former Ministry of Justice official Wang Gongyi as saying.
But doubts have been raised over how much real change the move signifies.
"Abolishing the RTL system is a step in the right direction. However, it now appears that it may only be a cosmetic change just to avert the public outcry over the abusive RTL system," said Amnesty's Corinna-Barbara Francis.
Other analysts of China's legal system have voiced similar concerns over what alternative methods of detention might replace the labour camps. While labour camps are overseen and regulated by the Ministry of Justice, other informal forms of detention exist with only the supervision of local authorities.
"There are also entirely off-the-books detention schemes that Chinese authorities use to deal with 'troublemakers,'" Carl Minzner, associate professor of Law at Fordham University, told Al Jazeera. "These exist without any legal grounds whatsoever.
"Without [RTL] as an option, it is also possible that some authorities will be more inclined to resort to these."
Minzner called the possibility a "potentially worse situation than [RTL], which at least had a set of rules governing their operation".
The decision to close re-education-through-labour camps has no impact on similar detention programmes for drug offenders and sex workers, where detainees are also subjected to forced labour without trial.
Indeed, many of the RTL camps that have already been closed are currently operating as "drug treatment centres". Local media in Shandong reported in July that one-third of the province's 12 labour camps had already been converted into such treatment facilities with more on the way.
As long as those [practices] are in place, the Chinese authorities will simply find new ways to punish individuals they see as a threat.
And as RTL camps are shut down, not all of those detained are given their freedom.
"This appears to be the case for at least significant numbers of political detainees, including important numbers of petitioners and Falun Gong practitioners," the Amnesty report said.
Many Falun Gong practitioners and former RTL detainees who have refused to renounce their beliefs have been transferred to so-called "legal education classes", according to the report, where they reported being beaten and subjected to intense psychological pressure to renounce their beliefs.
As opposed to labour camps, these "classes" are small in scope and operate secretly inside government buildings and even hotels. While family members of detainees are informed of their incarceration, those taken to legal education classes simply "disappear" with no information given on their whereabouts.
Similarly, while petitioners are no longer sentenced to re-education through labour, Amnesty highlighted numerous instances of petitioners being held by police in conditions similar to the legal education classes, or in some cases even forcibly admitted to psychiatric hospitals.
The report concludes the continuing use of such extra-judicial practices by China's law enforcement agencies mean the end of the labour camp system is unlikely to herald any substantial change.
"As long as those [practices] are in place," said Francis, "the Chinese authorities will simply find new ways to punish individuals they see as a threat."