BEIJING - China's deputy justice minister said on Friday the country's system for "community corrections"would not replace labour camps, which Beijing has said will be scrapped, easing rights groups' fears of a new form of extra-judicial detention.
The government said in mid-November it will abolish forced labour camps, often used against political activists, in response to public outrage over human rights abuses.
It also announced it would improve "the system of community corrections", or home detention, raising concerns this could become a labour camp system under another name. "I think this view is possibly a confused (one) or arises from a lack of understanding about our current system," China's deputy justice minister Zhao Dacheng said.
In a press conference, Zhao stressed that the system for"community corrections" will not supplant "re-education through labour", which empowers police to sentence petty criminals to up to four years' confinement without going through the courts.
Zhao said "community corrections" is based on the provisions of the criminal law and will be extended to people who are put on probation, parole or those handed down "light punishments" or"short sentences". "The biggest advantage is changing the environment within the wall, so that these people do not have to leave the social environment that they are familiar with, they don't have to leave their family," he said. "So their thoughts and emotions can be stable and they can have better living and working conditions."
Offenders will also have to undergo "ideological education".
Maya Wang, an Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch, said Zhao's answer "is encouraging, as community correction without a custody element is better than re-education through labour". "But we will have to see how this is implemented in practice after re-education through labour is abolished, as we know implementation of laws is often a problem in China," she said.
Human Rights Watch is still concerned that many labour camps have been converted into drug rehabilitation centres, which are administrative detention facilities where people can be held for years without trial, Wang said. "The system to 'maintain stability' hasn't really changed, so the abolition of re-education through labour might actually lead to greater use of extralegal detention systems such as black jails...," she said.
China's "re-education through labour" system, in place since 1957, is a system that critics say undermines the rule of law.
The government has also announced other legal reforms, including gradually reducing the number of crimes subject to the death penalty. Rights groups have said China uses capital punishment more than any other country and regularly criticise it for secrecy about the use of the punishment.
Zhao declined to disclose the number of people who have received death penalties, but indicated that China will continue reforming the death penalty system. "We think that with the progress of the rule of law, with the constant improvement of the judicial system, along with the continued strengthening of social stability, we will continue to move forward in this area," he said.
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Michael Perry)