By Michael Martina and Terril Yue Jones
BEIJING (Reuters) - China will reform its controversial system of forced labor camps this year, state media reported on Monday, which would mark a first step toward legal reform promised by new Communist Party chief Xi Jinping.
China's "re-education through labor" system, in place since 1957, empowers police to sentence petty criminals to up to four years' confinement without going through the courts, a system that critics say undermines the rule of law and is used against political activists.
The announcement by state news agency Xinhua contradicted earlier media reports that cited domestic security head Meng Jianzhu as saying China would scrap the system. Those reports were removed from media websites without an explanation.
"The Chinese government will this year push the reform of its controversial re-education through labor system, according to a national political and legal work conference on Monday," Xinhua reported.
State broadcaster CCTV had said earlier on its microblog site, citing the party's newly appointed Political and Legal Affairs Committee head, Meng, as saying: "Use of the re-education through labor system will end this year, after approval from the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress."
The National People's Congress refers to China's largely rubberstamp parliament session held annually in March.
The Justice Ministry did not respond to a faxed inquiry by Reuters.
The labor camp system has come under fire from intellectuals, rights lawyers and activists, and even state media.
"If it can be abolished this year, I think it's an extremely important step toward rule of law," He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University, told Reuters.
"XI MEANS BUSINESS"
China has 350 labor camps throughout the country, housing about 160,000 inmates, according to Xinhua, which cited the bureau of "re-education through labor" under the Ministry of Justice.
Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group, said there has been a precedent for a new leadership to take a symbolic step of reforming problematic systems.
"It has been my sense that Xi Jinping means business and that there would be a departure from the caretaking years of Hu and Wen," he said, referring to outgoing President Hu Jintao and outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao.
But Bequelin cautioned that reform, rather than the outright abolishment of the system, may only mean procedural improvements such as "a somewhat milder form of administrative detention".
He said a system could be introduced with some procedural protection, such as a hearing and the ability of a defendant to get legal counsel.
State media has taken up the case of people it believes have suffered miscarriages of justice under the system such as Ren Jianyu, a village official sentenced to a labor camp after he criticized the government.
Media also rallied to the defense of Tang Hui, a woman who was sent to a labor camp in August for demanding that the men who had raped her daughter be given harsher punishment. She was later released.
Whether China reforms the system hinges on the power of security agencies, which are responsible for reining in social unrest that threatens the party's efforts to maintain stability.
Meng, also public security minister, took over as head of the body that oversees law-and-order policy after November's party congress from Zhou Yongkang, who critics say had accumulated too much power.
(Writing by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Nick Macfie and Robert Birsel)