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BEIJING: China will stop handing down labor camp sentences this year under a system that allowed police to lock up government critics and other defendants for up to four years without trial, the country's top law enforcement official said Monday.

The move would be a key step in reforming China's judicial system, though details remained unclear, including what would become of existing "reeducation through labor" camps and their current inmates and whether this presages a new system involving court hearings before defendants can be sent to such facilities.

The comments by Communist Party Politics and Law Committee head Meng Jianzhu were not officially announced, but were reported by Chen Dongsheng, a bureau chief for the Legal Daily, the official newspaper of China's Justice Ministry.

The proposal must first be sent to China's legislature, the National People's Congress, for approval, Chen quoted Meng as saying.

Chen said he heard Meng make the pledge at a conference carried on closed-circuit television. China’s supreme court and other government offices declined to comment, although the respected independent magazine Caixin said it had confirmed Chen’s report with an unidentified conference participant.

"Meng said the reeducation system had played a useful role in the past but conditions had now changed," Chen told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

The labor camp system originally was used to detain accused counterrevolutionaries or other critics of the Communist government, but was later expanded to punish prostitutes, drug addicts and other minor criminals. Authorities sentenced large numbers of Falun Gong adherents to the camps after banning the meditation movement as an evil cult in the late 1990s.

The labor camp system has been widely condemned by lawyers and human rights activists as outdated and open to abuse, especially in locking away those who criticize officials or government policies.

Those included minor officials and private citizens who attacked once high-flying politician Bo Xilai over his brutal crackdown on organized crime and promotion of Mao Zedong-era Communist culture, some of whom were released following his spectacular fall from power last year in the country’s biggest political scandal in years.

Ren Jianyu, a local official sentenced to two years in a labor camp after criticizing Bo’s Maoist revival on the Internet, said ending such sentences would benefit both legal reform and freedom of speech.

"I'm really happy to hear that the system will be gone. It's major progress, though the price we paid is rather heavy," said Ren, who was released last year without explanation after serving 15 months.

China has 310 labor camps holding about 310,000 prisoners and employing 100,000 staff, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

Ending labor camp sentences appears to be an indication of new Communist leader Xi Jinping’s desire to carry out moderate political and legal reforms that had largely stalled under predecessor Hu Jintao. Since taking power in November, Xi has called for further crackdowns on corruption and government extravagance and the strengthening of the legal system.

Pu Zhiqiang, a lawyer who has frequently represented government critics, said the labor camp system’s legality had long been in question and its elimination remained a long-term goal of legal activists.

"This announcement is a very good thing but we’d still like to hear them say that they’re getting rid of reeducation through labor entirely," Pu said.

Pu said it remained unclear whether the system would be replaced with something similar, or whether those already sentenced would have their records wiped clean.

Hong Kong-based human rights researcher Joshua Rosenzweig said the system’s elimination would likely increase the stress on China’s already heavily overburdened court system. While China could eliminate some sentences entirely, the country’s stability-obsessed leaders have offered no indication that they plan to do so, Rosenzweig said.

"“There’s no evidence that they’re changing their mindset on security," he said.

- AP via The Washington Post