HONG KONG — Months after China officially outlawed the notorious system of re-education through labor, Chinese media reported that in some areas of the country authorities replaced the system with a new form of extrajudicial detention where detainees can be held indefinitely without legal recourse.
The Beijing-based daily newspaper Xinjingbao reported on Thursday that local officials in the central Chinese province of Henan operated a number of “reprimand education centers."
The news sparked outrage online, where Internet users called these centers “new labor camps,” referring to the system of arbitrary detention used by police to imprison petty criminals, drug addicts as well as petitioners for up to four years without trial.
The government abolished the camps in November, but rights groups have since warned that local authorities are using different methods to imprison people without legal process.
The Xinjingbao reported that counties in Henan had set aside funds and staff to establish the centers, which were a “new approach to legally concentrate and handle abnormal petitioners.”
Lawyer Li Fangping has long advocated against labor camps. Li said it is clear the centers are institutionalized, and they could be even worse than labor camps, where police were at least required to follow a procedure.
With reprimand centers, Li said, authorities can imprison who they want arbitrarily.
If detainees do not cooperate or refuse to admit fault, police can hold them indefinitely, Li said.
Thursday's report was triggered by online posts of a local resident, Yang Jinfen, whose elderly mother was held in one of the centers after she visited Beijing to petition in front of the ministry of justice.
The 70-year-old woman was seeking help from the central government against local authorities whom she said crippled her son.
Yang told VOA that her mother, Zhang Fengmei, was still under detention on Thursday, and this was the second time this year authorities incarcerated her without giving any official explanation. The first time was at the beginning of January for 10 days. Now, Zhang Fengmei has been held for over two weeks.
Yang said the room where they keep her mother is small and does not have a bed. Yang said her mother is diabetic but the center does not provide any medical care.
Yang's brother Yang Jinde was involved in a business dispute. After courts ruled against him, Yang staged a protest and petitioned to Beijing.
He was found guilty of being a member of a criminal gang and sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Yang Jinfen said her brother was tortured in jail, and is now crippled and in a vegetative state. When her family went to visit Yang Jinde in jail last year, his whole body was paralyzed and his eyes where closed, Yang said. He could not speak and showed no response at all.
Zhang Fengmei - who is now detained in a reprimand center - was in Beijing asking central authorities to investigate the tortures perpetrated against her son. The family is also seeking medical care for Yang Jinde, whom they say has not received any treatment in jail.
Authorities have not notified Yang of her mother's crime, nor have they said when she will be released.