China's Li says labour camp plans could be revealed

BEIJING (AFP) - Plans to reform China's controversial "re-education" labour camp system could be unveiled before the end of the year, Li Keqiang said on Sunday at his first news conference as premier.

The deeply unpopular "laojiao" system is largely used for petty offenders but is also blamed for widespread rights abuses by corrupt officials seeking to punish whistleblowers and those who try to complain about them to higher authorities.

Under the scheme, people can be sent for up to four years' re-education by a police panel, without a court appearance where they could defend themselves.

Speculation mounted before China's annual parliament session that it was being earmarked for reform or even abolition, with calls for change from victims of the system increasing in recent months, and state-run media giving them prominence.

But no changes have been announced.

"The relevant authorities are working intensively on the plan to reform the re-education through labour system," Li said at a news conference.

"The plan might be unveiled before the end of the year," he added, without giving further details.

Li has taken over day-to-day running of the government and is number two in the ruling Communist Party.

State media said in January that the system would be abolished, but the reports were swiftly deleted and replaced with predictions of reforms, with few details and no timetable.

Many commentators believe that even if there was a strong desire from Beijing for reform, opposition from local areas could stifle any real change on the ground for a number of years.