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(New York) - The drafters and signatories of an historic public appeal for human rights and democracy in China are facing unprecedented retaliation by the government, Human Rights Watch said today. Several prominent signatories of the document, "Charter 08," have been detained by the police, and at least 10 other people have been questioned in connection with the document. The Charter was published on December 10 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"To commemorate human rights day by harassing signatories of a petition and arresting leading dissidents suggests that the Chinese government remains hostile to fundamental rights including expression and association," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "Indeed, it calls into question the government's intention to draft a national human rights action plan, when the exercise of such basic rights is curtailed."

Concern is mounting over the case of Liu Xiaobo, one of China's most well-known dissidents, who remained in police custody 48 hours after he was taken away from his home on December 8. According to Zhang Zuhua, a co-signatory detained at the same time and released after 12 hours, Liu may have been placed under formal criminal detention on suspicion of "incitement to subvert state power." Liu, a writer, a former teacher at Beijing Normal University, and the director of the independent Chinese PEN Center, is a veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. He has repeatedly been subject to various forms of incarceration, including house arrest.

The Charter, which urges putting human rights, democracy, and the rule of law at the core of the Chinese political system, was signed by more than 300 people from a cross-section of society, and by several prominent figures including retired party officials, former newspaper editors, members of the legal profession, and human rights defenders.

Human Rights Watch called for the Chinese government to immediately and unconditionally release Liu Xiaobo and other signatories detained or questioned in connection with the Charter. Human Rights Watch urged foreign governments to convey to the Chinese government their expectation that none of the signatories would be punished for simply exercising their right to free expression, including in criticizing China's political system. Although China's Constitution recognizes the right to free expression, this right is vitiated by provisions that preclude criticisms of the Communist Party of China.

"By affixing their names to the Charter the signatories knew they would face official retribution," Richardson said. "Their courage must be recognized, and their actions defended."

For profiles of Chinese human rights advocates in jail, under house arrest, or under police surveillance, please visit: 

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