BEIJING (Reuters) - China is increasingly using extra-judicial "black jails" and drug rehabilitation centers to punish people who would formerly have been sent to forced labor camps, rights group Amnesty International said on Tuesday.
China vowed last month to do away with hundreds of labor camps, as part of a landmark package of social and economic reforms. Official news agency Xinhua has said there are 350 such camps across the country, with up to 160,000 inmates.
But many of those in extra-judicial jails and rehabilitation centers are being punished for their political or religious beliefs, the London-based rights group said.
"It's clear that the underlying policies of punishing people for their political activities or religious beliefs haven't changed," said Corinna-Barbara Francis, Amnesty's China researcher.
"The abuses and torture are continuing, just in a different way."
China's foreign ministry said on Tuesday that Amnesty is prejudiced against China.
"This group has always had ideological prejudices against China, and continues to make unreasonable criticisms and starts rumors to smear China," said Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The camps are part of a controversial program called re-education through labor that lets police detain political and religious dissidents for up to four years without any judicial process.
Such dissidents include petitioners, government critics, members of the banned spiritual group Falun Gong and petty criminals.
Amnesty, in a report based on more than 60 interviews with families, lawyers and former inmates conducted over five years, found the use of other forms of extra-judicial detention, especially drug rehab facilities, had widened and could supplant the labor camp system.
"Many of the policies and practices which resulted in individuals being punished for peacefully exercising their human rights by sending them to re-education through labor camps have not fundamentally changed: quite the contrary," Amnesty said.
"Black jails", or unofficial detention facilities, are also being used more often, and as they have no legal basis in Chinese law, detainees are potentially at even greater risk of rights violations than in labor camps, it said.
Many labor camps said to have shut down have been rebranded as drug rehab centers or used for other forms of detention, Amnesty added.
Former detainees told Amnesty that drug detox institutions were very similar to the old labor camps, though a greater proportion of prisoners might be addicts.
The drug rehab camps were also used to punish political and religious dissidents "whether or not there is any evidence of them being addicted to drugs," the report said. Inmates can be held there for two years or more without trial.
Torture was rife in labor camps, Amnesty said.
Those interviewed described being deprived of food, water and sleep, being beaten by other inmates, having their flesh burned with metal rods, and being subjected to simulated drowning.
The treatment was often sparked by detainees' refusal to renounce religious beliefs or stop petitioning the government.
China has not said what will happen to current camp prisoners in the camps, or what will replace the system of re-education through labor.
The government has also expanded the use of what Amnesty calls "brainwashing centers," which China calls "legal education classes", as well as secret black jails, which are not acknowledged at all, the report said.
(Reporting by Megha Rajagopalan, additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Jeremy Laurence)