GENEVA - United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said on Tuesday (Feb 16) he had raised concerns and sought clarifications from Chinese authorities about the recent arrests of lawyers, and harassment and intimidation of government critics and non-governmental organisation (NGO) workers.
"We are seeing a very worrying pattern in China that has serious implications for civil society and the important work they do across the country," the High Commissioner said. "Civil society actors, from lawyers and journalists to NGO workers, have the right to carry out their work, and it is the states' duty to support and protect them," he said.
The High Commissioner said he appreciated the opportunity to raise such cases with Chinese officials in Geneva, and acknowledged their efforts to clarify matters. However, the responses he received indicate that the authorities "too often reflexively confuse the legitimate role of lawyers and activists with threats to public order and security".
Police have detained about 250 human rights lawyers, legal assistants, and activists across the country since a nationwide crackdown began last July, although many were subsequently released. Last month, 15 additional human rights lawyers were formally arrested, ten of them for the crime of "subversion of state power," which carries a sentence of 15 years to life in prison.
Among those facing the "subversion of state power charge" are leading human rights lawyers, Li Heping and Wang Yu.
"Lawyers should never have to suffer prosecution or any other kind of sanctions or intimidation for discharging their professional duties," Zeid said, adding that lawyers have an essential role to play in protecting human rights and the rule of law.
"I urge the Government of China to release all of them immediately and without conditions," Zeid added.
At the same time, the High Commissioner welcomed news of the release of two labour activists detained in Guangdong in December 2015, but noted some of their colleagues remain in detention.
The UN Human Rights Chief said he was also concerned by recent cases of disappearances of booksellers from Hong Kong. Five people from "Causeway Bay Books" - a shop that publishes books critical of the Chinese government - have gone missing since last October.
Most recently, Lee Bo, a British national, went missing on Dec 30, 2015. In late January, the Hong Kong police said that Lee Bo's wife had met with her husband on the mainland, and he told her he was assisting with an investigation. One of the other booksellers, Gui Minhai, who is a Swedish national, also reappeared last month when he was presented on China's state television. Gui, who went missing while in Thailand last October, "confessed" to a crime in the city of Ningbo in 2003. Chinese authorities confirmed this month that the three other booksellers were also being held and investigated for "illegal activities" in China.
"I urge the government of China to ensure a fair and transparent procedure for these cases," Zeid said, adding that the men's relatives and representatives should be given access to them.
The High Commissioner also expressed concern about the case of Peter Dahlin, a Swedish citizen and co-founder of the legal-aid NGO "Chinese Urgent Action Working Group." He was detained in early January and was the first foreigner to be held on charges of "endangering state security". In late January, Dahlin was expelled from China.
Like the bookseller Gui, Dahlin was presented on state television, where he "confessed" to having breached Chinese law. "I find this method of 'confession', extracted during incommunicado detention and publicized on national television, very worrying. It is a clear violation of the right to fair trial," Zeid said.
The government is currently drafting a new law which, if adopted, may have far-reaching implications for non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It is part of a series of new laws governing national security in China.
"I regret that more and more governments around the world are using national security measures to restrict the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, and as a tool to target human rights defenders and silence critics," Zeid said. "Security and human rights do not contradict each other. On the contrary they are complementary and mutually reinforcing. Respect for human rights and public participation are key to ensuring rule of law and national security."
At the same time, the High Commissioner welcomed the recent enactment of a nation-wide law on domestic violence as an important step in strengthening legal protection for women in accordance with China's international commitments.