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(Hong Kong) - Delegates to China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) should exercise their constitutional authority to censure the government over the serious and widespread human rights violations perpetrated by officials across the country, Human Rights Watch said today. The NPC is China’s highest organ of state power and is scheduled to vote on the government’s annual work report on March 14.

A 2004 constitutional amendment requires that “the State respects and protects human rights.” Under Chinese law, NPC delegates benefit from immunity for speeches or votes they make in the legislature.

“Government officials violate human rights on a daily basis,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “It is the duty of the legislature to hold the executive branch to its commitments. Balloting is secret and the electronic voting system used by the legislature cannot trace votes to individual delegates.”

Human Rights Watch said that despite China’s constitutional obligation to strengthen rights protections, the central government has done little to curtail local officials’ enormous administrative powers and near-total impunity. These officials have overseen land expropriation, housing demolitions, forced resident relocations, environmental pollution, and pervasive corruption, actions which the government admits are fuelling mounting social unrest across the country. The government has reported 87,000 “public order disturbances” in 2005. For example, in December, police opened fire on villagers opposing land confiscations in the southern village of Dongzhou, Guangdong province, killing at least three protesters.

The government has responded to escalating disputes by calling on local authorities to better respect the rights and interests of their citizens but at the same time has adopted an array of repressive measures against the media and rule of law activists. Media have been prohibited from reporting on land disputes and rural unrest. Legal campaigners, including some members of local legislatures, have been unlawfully harassed, detained, intimidated, and even physically assaulted.

“Arbitrary abuse of power by government officials is the number one concern for Chinese citizens,” said Adams. “Hundreds of thousands of petitions addressed to the NPC attest to it. It is time for the delegates to act on these concerns and push for effective rights protection.”

Despite the government’s statements on the importance of the rule of law and constitutional rights, many plaintiffs have no meaningful avenue for seeking redress. The petition system has an infinitesimal rate of success, and courts routinely refuse to permit cases to be filed. Both paths regularly expose the plaintiffs to extra-judicial harassment, including physical assault, and, in certain extreme cases, even death.

Criminal lawyers who battle for greater respect of the rule of law have faced increasing pressure over the past year. In Beijing, Gao Zhisheng, a leading criminal lawyer known for taking up cases of torture and local officials’ abuses of power, has had his law practice closed and is being subjected to extra-judicial harassment by law-enforcement agents. As other rule of law advocates embraced his appeal for a symbolic hunger-strike movement to oppose violations of constitutional rights, the government has silenced them through arrest, detention, and house-arrest. A number of the participants in this hunger strike campaign, including Hu Jia, Zhao Xin, Chen Xiaoming, Qi Zhiyong, Yu Zhijian, and Yan Zhengxue, are still unaccounted for.

Under China’s Constitution, the NPC is the highest organ of state power, and exercises the legislative power of the state. It supervises the enforcement of the Constitution, drafts and enacts legislation, and elects state leaders. The NPC meets once a year, while the Standing Committee of the NPC is the permanent body. Any group of 30 or more delegates can submit a motion to the NPC, and address questions to government organs. Proposals by delegates to codify greater protection of rights in the past have included taping police interrogations to prevent torture, enacting a law to protect the rights of landless farmers, and a requirement for officials to declare their incomes and financial assets. On rare occasions NPC delegates have used their votes to indicate dissatisfaction with the government.

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