Chinese province of Henan admits unlawful detention centres for petitioners

BEIJING (AFP) - A Chinese province on Friday admitted running unlawful "discipline centres" to detain petitioners - months after the country abolished labour camps often used to lock them up.

Authorities in the central province of Henan have been running "discipline centres" in various areas, said a report by the official news agency Xinhua, posted on the website of the province's Communist Party committee overseeing law and politics.

They had been set up to fulfil province-wide instructions issued in 2008 "to adopt various methods of education and discipline to deal with local abnormal petitioners headed to Beijing", the report said.

Many were shut in recent years, it added. "But certain areas maintained them and even took it upon themselves to hang up 'discipline centre' signs. This behaviour did not comply with legal regulations."

For generations, ordinary Chinese people unable to find redress for grievances have petitioned higher-level governments, all the way up to Beijing.

But their complaining embarrassed local authorities, which often bundled such individuals home and sometimes sentenced repeat petitioners to up to four years of "re-education through labour", known as laojiao.

Last November, the ruling Communist Party announced the abolition of the controversial laojiao camps. Some provinces shut their sites completely while others converted them into drug rehabilitation centres, domestic media have since reported.

But overseas rights groups cast doubt over the promises, questioning what system might replace the camps.

A woman aged about 70 was held for five days at one site in Henan's Nanyang city in a room with a bucket for a toilet and several officials watching over her, said the Beijing News, which first exposed the centres' existence.

A month earlier, she had been locked up for 10 days after petitioning in the capital, the newspaper cited her son as saying.

It quoted other Henan petitioners saying they had been held at discipline centres for two to six months.

A few local governments in the province described operating such centres on their websites, the Beijing News said in a separate report on Thursday.

Those references could not be found online on Friday.

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