08/30/2005, 00.00
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UN Commissioner for Human Rights in China to discuss reforming legal system

Louise Arbour meets Chinese President Hu and other government officials. Discussions centre on rights violation and legal system reforms that would allow China to ratify and implement the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour is in Beijing on a five-day mission to discuss China's widely criticised justice system, including police torture, arbitrary courts and heavy use of the death penalty.

Her agenda leaves little time for sightseeing: Today she meets China's Justice Minister and will visit the Sunshine correctional facility considered "an exemplary centre for rehabilitating people"; Thursday, she is due to meet the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; she is also scheduled to meet the Foreign Minister and other governmental officials as well as non-governmental officials. Yesterday, she met President Hu Jintao.

Mr Hu is getting ready for a visit to the United States that will begin September 7 and many expect him to make a gesture of good will to continue the human rights dialogue with Western powers and the UN.

According to José Diaz, a spokesman for Ms Arbour's office, talks will focus on reforming China's legal system, a step necessary if Beijing wants to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The High Commissioner would like to see at least some kind of timetable for ratification of the covenant which China signed in 1998 but which it has neither ratified nor incorporated in its domestic law.

The parties will also discuss the recommendations made by the UN Commission on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. The world body wants China to deal with 27 issues; among them: forced labour and abortion, discrimination against internal migrants, low salaries.

One of the main request concerns China's Lao Gai system of 're-education-labour camps' which allows the authorities to incarcerate dissidents and government critics for up to four years forced labour. The other concerns China's heavy-handed application of the death penalty—some 12,000 cases a year.

According to official figure, there are at least 26,000 prisoners in forced labour camps. A proposal that would reduce sentences to 18 months and grant the accused a right to appeal is under consideration.

Currently, China's 670 prisons hold some 1.5 million prisoners. Human Rights groups have long criticised its judicial system, which is seen as subordinate to the ruling Communist Party and an instrument to maintain its grip on power.

Ms Arbour's visit to China is the eighth by a UN human rights envoy in seven years. In 1998 then Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson was able to raise the issue of human rights violations, torture and abuses for the first time with Chinese officials.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak is also due to arrive in China in November to check out reports about the use of torture against prisoners.

The mission, which was postponed several times, will also include stops in Tibet and Xinjiang.

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