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China: 2009 Marked by Political Hardening

Rights Defenders Targeted in Face of Weak International Engagement

(Washington) - Human rights protections in China faced significant setbacks in 2009 as the Chinese government, emboldened by increasingly weak international criticism of its rights record, pursued politically-motivated attacks against dissidents, human rights defenders, and civil society advocates, Human Rights Watch said in its annual World Report, released today.

Rather than relaxing restrictions imposed for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the report points out that the government imposed severe penalties against groups and individuals perceived as threats, ranging from Tibetans and Uighurs to legal aid workers. The report also details restrictions on the freedoms of expression and religion, the slow pace of legal reform, and the Chinese government's ongoing relations with abusive regimes.

"That the Chinese government this year released a national action plan on human rights is ironic, as its real plan seems to entail steadily curtailing - not protecting - rights," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

In December 2009 alone, the Chinese government displayed the breadth and depth of its disregard for human rights inside and outside its borders.

December 19: Under pressure from the Chinese government, the Cambodian government forcibly returned 20 Uighur asylum seekers, including two children, to China. The group had fled to Cambodia in the wake of a massive security crackdown on Uighurs in their home province of Xinjiang, following ethnic violence there in July 2009, and had been designated as "persons of concern" by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The Chinese government's routine disregard for due process in Xinjiang puts the repatriated Uighurs at high risk of torture, disappearance, and arbitrary detention.

December 25: The Beijing Intermediate People's Court sentenced veteran dissident Liu Xiaobo to an 11- year prison term. The sentence rests on spurious charges of "incitement to subvert state power" for Liu's contribution to the drafting of "Charter ‘08," a political manifesto calling for human rights and the rule of law in China, as well as several articles he had published in previous years. Liu was arrested on December 8, 2008, and detained for over a year before being convicted.

December 28: The Xining Intermediate People's Court sentenced Tibetan filmmaker Dhongdup Wangchen to six years on charges of "inciting separatism" for producing a documentary film, Leaving Fear Behind, which criticized Chinese government policies in Tibet. Police arrested Wangchen in March 2008. In July 2009, Xining judicial authorities arbitrarily replaced the lawyer chosen by Wangchen, Li Dunyong, with a government-appointed lawyer. Wangchen had only been allowed to meet with Li once, in July 2009. Li reported that his client had been tortured in order to extract a confession, and that he remained in pain a year later.

December 29: The Chinese government executed UK citizen Akmal Shaikh on drug smuggling charges. The execution followed more than two dozen interventions by the British government, which argued that Shaikh's bipolar disorder warranted a forensic examination of that might have exempted him from criminal responsibility according to Chinese law. In the wake of Shaikh's execution, the Chinese government cancelled the annual UK-China bilateral human rights dialogue.

December 31: A Sichuan court sentenced Phurbu Tsering, a senior Tibetan cleric, to an eight-year prison term on politically-motivated charges of illegal weapons possession after an investigation and prosecution marred by numerous violations of due process. Phurbu stated in court that while he was in detention, police interrogated him continuously for four days and nights, forcing him to assume painful physical positions throughout. While being subjected to this treatment, he was told that if he did not confess to the weapons charge, his wife and son would be detained. Despite Phurbu's statements to the court, officials did not inquire into the circumstances of his interrogation.

International concern about these abuses was muted. The EU gave in to Chinese pressure and limited NGO participation in two rounds of the "EU-China Human Rights Seminar" in 2009, including the session in Europe. En route to Beijing in February 2009, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that human rights "shouldn't interfere" in the US-China relationship, and President Barack Obama decided not to meet the Dalai Lama prior to his November visit to Beijing. While in China, Obama raised human rights broadly in his public statements but did not directly engage pressing issues of freedom of expression, religious minorities, the disbarment of civil rights lawyers, or ongoing crackdowns in Xinjiang and Tibet.

"Agreeing to raise human rights only behind closed doors in Beijing is a losing proposition," said Richardson. "We've seen through China's behavior this year that doing so only makes foreign governments look tentative and weak."

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