Obama urged to press China to free 16 prisoners

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Family members of prisoners on Thursday asked President Barack Obama to urge China's new leader to free 16 inmates, saying that human rights needed to be a priority at their tone-setting summit.

President Xi Jinping will on Friday hold his first talks with Obama since taking office. Both sides say that the meeting at a secluded resort in the California desert is aimed at building a chemistry between the leaders.

"This summit is not only about personal friendship building. It's a summit between the presidents of two countries and they should have a purpose to build a more just society," said Mr Chen Guangcheng, the blind self-taught lawyer who dramatically escaped house arrest for the US embassy in Beijing last year.

"President Obama should stop the trade-centered diplomacy and instead make it a human rights-centered diplomacy," Mr Chen, who studies in New York, told a news conference in Washington by videolink.

While activists routinely urge the United States (US) to prioritize human rights, advocacy groups are trying a more concerted effort by drawing up a list of 16 prisoners and urging Mr Obama to press specifically for their freedom.

Advocacy groups plan to roll out wristbands and other mementos for the "China 16" initiative in hopes of building pressure to free the prisoners, who together have been sentenced to four life terms plus 165 years.

The 16 prisoners include Chen's nephew Chen Kegui, who was imprisoned and allegedly beaten in what activists say is retaliation by authorities in eastern Shandong province who felt humiliated by his uncle's escape.

Other prominent names on the list include Mr Gao Zhisheng, a lawyer who has allegedly faced severe physical abuse after defending unpopular causes, and Mr Liu Xiaobo, the jailed Nobel Peace laureate who wrote a bold manifesto for reform.

Another prisoner, Mr Peng Ming, was a reform-minded former official living in exile whose family said he was kidnapped in 2004 in Thailand when he tried to set up a haven for Chinese dissidents and was lured by secret police.

His daughter Lisa Peng, a poised 16-year-old who lives in the US, said that her father has remained strong despite suffering heart attacks and kidney stones in prison without medical treatment.

"It is this hope that my father has instilled in me, despite the thousands of miles that have separated him from nearly a decade of my life - a decade of childhood memories, emotional growth, intellectual maturity," she said.

"I continue to have great hope that all of us, and especially our president, will reaffirm the universal and fundamental values of our country - freedom, democracy and justice," she said.