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 police can 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 Communist Party, which controls China's courts, police and prosecutors, has said it is trying 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 legislature formally abolished a labor camp system that allowed police to lock up people for up to four years without due process. The system of re-education through labor 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.
While most sex work-related offenses may be punishable by fines and short periods of police custody or detention, the Custody and Education system allows for administrative detention of six months to two years for repeat offenders. The purpose is to give sex workers and their clients "legal and moral education," and to have them participate in "productive labor." However, a report in December by Asia Catalyst, an advocacy group that works with marginalized communities, said the centers' primary purpose appeared to be profit-making, with detainees receiving little education and expected to pay for their lodging.
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.
Another signatory, women's rights activist Chen Sile, said the women incarcerated in the centers were viewed as immoral by society and found it hard to fight for fair treatment.
"There is no way for them to better themselves, even if they do want to change their work it is too difficult," Chen said.
Now that the re-education through labor system has been abolished, "it is the right time to talk about abolishing regulations relating to Custody and Education," she said.
AP news assistant Fu Ting in Shanghai contributed to this report.