Beijing, China - Human rights activists and scholars are calling on China to halt the use of "black jails" and forced labour camps to detain accused sex workers.
Suspected sex workers who are marked for detention and locked up in a "Custody and Education" labour camp for up to two years have no access to a lawyer or the right to present a defence, according to legal scholars in China and in the US.
Without the benefit of even the minimal protections offered by China's tightly controlled courts, those detained are questioned, tried, and sentenced solely by police officers, who sometimes extract forced confessions or offer a reprieve in exchange for a substantial bribe, said Sophie Richardson, China Director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
More and more lawyers are pushing for a governing system marked by rule by law, including the abolition of the custody and education camps.
'Impunity' for police
In terms of torturing defendants into confessing real or imagined crimes, Richardson explained, "The Chinese police enjoy enormous impunity."
"The Chinese police are rarely prosecuted for human rights abuses," she added.
Despite an escalating government campaign to curtail calls for constitutional rule and other liberalisations - by arresting leaders of the New Citizens Movement - dozens of Chinese scholars recently published an open appeal for the National People's Congress to dismantle the Custody and Education labour camps that are scattered across China.
These scholars have been emboldened by the Communist Party's declaration that it would abolish the re-education through labour camps that for more than half a century have been used by China's security apparatus to silence "counterrevolutionary" critics, priests, democracy activists, and other malcontents.
Liu Renwen, a scholar who heads the department of criminal law at the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the recent decision to abolish re-education through labour camps, whose inmates were marked for imprisonment extrajudicially, could likewise portend the closure of the labour camps for sex workers.
China's re-education camps, patterned after the Soviet Union's Gulag Archipelago, were created in the mid-1950s to hold those swept up "in a nationwide movement to suppress counterrevolutionary elements," Liu explained.
But these days, as the People's Republic moves away from its totalitarian beginnings, more and more scholars are questioning the use of extrajudicial detention.
The re-education centres, and the forced labour camps that are still being used to punish sex workers, all violate China's own laws and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Liu said.
The covenant, which China signed in 1998, provides: "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention," and it prohibits the imprisonment of anyone who has not been given a trial.
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No more 'black jails'?
Rights advocates have likewise pressed the authorities to close the secretive "black jails" that crisscross the Chinese capital and the nation. These unmarked prisons also are used to hold those who seek to petition the central government to redress an injustice - an illegal land seizure or a politically motivated prosecution - at the hands of local government officials.
"More and more lawyers are pushing for a governing system marked by the rule by law, including the abolition of the custody and education camps," rights activist Ye Haiyan said.
However, Ye acknowledged that this struggle would not be easy.
Shortly after she launched a website advocating basic human rights protections for sex workers and the closure of forced labour camps, she came under intense pressure to close the site, which was simultaneously attacked by hackers.
Two years ago, when Ye set up a small support centre for sex workers in southern China, a gang of thugs attacked the centre and threatened her with a knife.
Although Ye reported the break-in and threats to the local police, she said no arrests were made.
A long-running micro blog that Ye uses to chronicle events like these has gone viral and generated increased support for reining in police and closing the camps they use to threaten and confine those accused of sex crimes.
"The internet and the micro blogs are becoming more and more powerful on these issues," Ye said.
The custody and education camps do nothing to improve working and living conditions for women [or anyone else].
Online forums "also provide a window for legislators to observe the thinking of people at all levels of society," she added.
Women's rights advocates around the world have taken up these appeals for the abolition of China's gulags for sex workers.
"The custody and education camps do nothing to improve working and living conditions for women [or anyone else]," said Gail Hershatter, a scholar at the University of California Santa Cruz who has been shuttling between the US and China for nearly four decades.
A professor of history and author of the book Dangerous Pleasures: Prostitution and Modernity in 20th-Century Shanghai, Hershatter said: "A re-evaluation of state policy on this question is long overdue."
In the early years after the Chinese communist takeover in 1949, during the reign of Mao Zedong, the government did a much better job at changing the fortunes and the professions of one-time prostitutes.
Government leaders "got those women medical treatment, some job training, and husbands," the scholar explained. "They shut down the sexual service economy, or at least reduced its scope dramatically."
Sex worker labour camps
But Mao's present-day successors focus solely on punishment of those marked as sex workers.
"The labour camps," said activist Ye, "don't change anyone's profession or future".
"It would be great if the government invested money in providing training for these underprivileged women or in setting them up as small entrepreneurs," she added.
Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang said that across China there is a growing sense of injustice at the Chinese government selectively marking these "women at the lowest rungs of society" for incarceration in a prison camp.
Built into the system of prosecution around these camps, "there is a great incentive for police to extract confessions", she said.
In a report that was recently published in Chinese by Human Rights Watch, the group stated: "Sex workers report a wide range of abuses at the hands of the police."
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"These [abuses] range from arbitrary arrests and detention to physical violence, ill-treatment [and] violation of due process rights," added HRW researchers who interviewed dozens of sex workers, lawyers, and even police officials in Beijing.
Beating accused sex workers to coerce confessions is routine, the rights group stated.
"Some of the abuses meted out to sex workers in police custody constitute torture under domestic law," the group said. One suspect told HRW how she and two friends were assaulted by the police: "They attached us to trees, threw freezing cold water on us, and then proceeded to beat us."
To circumvent China's nationwide block on HRW's website, Maya Wang says, the group posted the report on a constellation of micro blogs across Chinese cyberspace and emailed it to people, including government officials, throughout China.
Andrew Nathan, a scholar at Columbia University in New York who has written extensively on China's legal system, said that although Beijing still has not ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, "The Chinese government [leaders] themselves have said that they are delaying ratification in order to bring their domestic system more into line with the covenant before ratifying."
Compliance with that covenant would require the complete abolition of the black jails operated to hold petitioners and the forced labour camps used to detain accused sex workers, says Nathan, who also heads Columbia's Center for the Study of Human Rights.
The government's pledge to dismantle re-education through labour centres is part of slow-motion moves towards reform of law enforcement and punishment, but it is not clear if these moves will be extended any time soon, he said. "One can speculate about the forces at work inside the government that have on the one hand produced this trend and on the other resisted it and made it so slow."
Perry Link, a widely respected scholar on the imprisonment of China's leading activists for human rights and democratic change, said: "People in China call for the shutting down of re-education camps and black jails quite a bit."
Even some reform-minded government officials have dared to publicly echo these appeals.
"But others inside the government - especially at the top - are most worried about maintaining power," he added, "and want to continue with arbitrary arrest of critics, use of black jails, torture, extra-legal intimidation and muggings, and even 'accidental' killings - all in order to stay on top."