Chinese beat up wife of activist

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ALL THAT Chu Hailan wanted was to hand a letter to Mary Robinson, the visiting United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, asking for help. The health of Mrs Chu's 50-year-old husband, a veteran activist, is failing after more than three years "re-education through labour", an administrative sentence handed down in China without a trial.

So, yesterday morning, Mrs Chu waited outside the Hilton Hotel in Peking, where Mrs Robinson was due to give a speech on "social justice as an essential prerequisite for sustainable development".

Mrs Chu was standing outside the main entrance to the hotel as Mrs Robinson was due to arrive. Suddenly hotel security guards moved in and tried to drag the small Chinese woman into the hotel.

"She resisted, digging in her heels," a Western eyewitness said. "Then the plainclothes men moved in. They were much harsher. There were about six men on her." Mrs Chu was dragged, screaming, through the foyer of the Hilton. Eight hours later she was released, and said she had been beaten.

Such are the episodes Mrs Robinson must address as she seeks to engage China over its human rights record. Later yesterday, she said she was "very concerned" over the incident and had spoken to the assistant foreign minister, Wang Guangya, who is accompanying her.

Peking usually dismisses Western critics of its human rights record, saying China's priority is to improve human rights through economic development.

Mr Wang told foreign reporters that China's constitution protected freedom of expression, but that for such an activity it was necessary to obtain prior permission.

Mrs Chu's husband, Liu Nianchun, is in Tuanhe Re-education Camp because he lobbied for workers' rights, including the right to set up independent trade unions. He was arrested in 1995 for "disturbing social order".

In an open letter to Mrs Robinson, released last week, Mrs Chu said her husband had been denied medical care even though he was suffering from "tumours and ulcers in his intestines, growths on his lower jaw, high blood pressure, and stomach problems". She wrote: "His health is worsening every day. When we visited Liu Nianchun on 20 August, the prison officer said, `If Liu Nianchun dies suddenly, the government will not bear responsibility'."

This is the first visit by a UN human rights commissioner to China, and Mrs Robinson's officials have let it be known that while she is not planning meetings with dissidents, she will not turn anyone away who wants to speak to her.

But Mrs Robinson and her UN party are not easy to contact. If one phones and asks to be put through to the Sheraton hotel rooms of the UN officials accompanying Mrs Robinson, an official screens the calls. Even then the phone appears to be engaged, even when there is no one in the room. One source said no calls or letters from dissidents or ordinary Chinese had been received by the UN party.

Throughout the packed official 10-day programme, Mrs Robinson's entourage will be under constant watch. One official said yesterday that a folder had disappeared from an unlocked briefcase in his room.

Yesterday, Mrs Robinson sounded cautious. "The visit I think is going well. It is not easy, and I hope there are not unreal expectations about what can be done on a visit of this kind."

This morning she arrives for a two-day stop in Tibet, where human rights abuses are well-documented.

After a UN visit last year to Drapchi prison in Tibet, there were reports of inmates being subjected to brutal treatment and even killed. Mrs Robinson is expected to raise this in meetings with officials.