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Chinese lawyers call for abolition of system that detains sex workers without trial

Scores of legal experts and activists wrote to China's legislature on Monday calling for the abolition of a detention system that allows women arrested for prostitution to be locked up for up to two years without trial.

In the joint letter, the 109 signatories say the Custody and Education system is inconsistent with the rule of law because it allows police to send the women to detention centers without the involvement of prosecutors or courts, and the administrative regulations restricting individuals' freedom are not backed by law.

The move comes amid stated attempts by the Communist Party, which controls the country's courts, police and prosecutors, to make the judicial system fairer. It has said it intends to boost judicial independence by transferring control of local courts from local governments to higher courts, although detailed plans have yet to be released.

In December, the national legislature formally abolished a labor camp system that allowed police to lock up people — often government critics — for up to four years without due process.

The re-education through labor system received much attention from legal activists and outside observers because, while it was meant to focus on petty criminals, it became a tool for local officials to deal with people challenging their authority on issues including land rights and corruption.

Activists say the system that deals with sex workers and some of their clients, on the other hand, has been largely ignored because prostitution is frowned upon in society.

One of the signatories, Liu Jianshu, who works for a non-governmental organization that deals with legal aid issues, which co-organized the letter along with another group that promotes gender equality, said it had been sent by courier to the National People's Congress Standing Committee.