Robinson to tackle Chinese on human rights abuses

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The Independent Online
ZHAO CHANGQING, a teacher at a factory school in Shaanxi province, tried to run in a local election last year. As a result, Mr Zhao, who took part in the 1989 pro-democracy movement, was arrested in March and accused of endangering state security.

This weekend it emerged that he had been sentenced to prison by Shaanxi's Hanzhong District Intermediate Court. The court refused to tell his relatives the length of the sentence, when it had been handed down or even the crime of which he had been convicted.

These are the routine human rights abuses that China's dissidents hope Mary Robinson will raise on the first visit to Peking by a United Nations Human Rights Commissioner.

Mrs Robinson's nine-day visit, which started yesterday, will have to chart a difficult course between taking a tough line over human rights violations and averting a serious rift with her sensitive hosts. During her first year in the post, Mrs Robinson's outspokenness has already caused run-ins with governments in Cambodia, Rwanda, Algeria and Iran. The China trip is seen as her toughest test in a job in which some critics have complained that the former Irish president has failed to live up to expectations.

Her hosts will keep her on a tight leash, and it is still unclear whether she will risk an attempt to meet mainland dissidents, 56 of whom last week signed a petition asking for a chance to talk to her.

The visit includes two days in Tibet, where religious and political repression is severe, and meetings with China's leaders, lawmakers, women's groups and "representatives of civil society". High on the agenda is the promised signing by China of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is meant to guarantee individual liberties, and a timetable for ratifying the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

China agreed to Mrs Robinson's visit only after the European Union earlier this year abandoned a motion of censure against China at the Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Western politicians who argued against confrontation with China pointed to the UN visit as proof that "engagement" was worthwhile, but this puts pressure on Mrs Robinson to make the trip more than simply symbolic.

China's rights campaigners want to see concrete results on the systematic abuses in the country. A petition signed by more than 100 activists was released yesterday, calling on her to visit labour camps. It urged her to lobby Peking to scrap the "reform through labour" punishment system, under which someone can be sentenced to three years without a trial and with no access to lawyers.

Human Rights in China, a New York-based group, said 230,000 are imprisoned under this legislation. The dissidents' petition also called on Mrs Robinson to lobby for the right to form political parties and for curbs on police powers.

Many personal freedoms and human rights commitments are enshrined in China's constitution. But this means little in a country where the police are a law unto themselves, and where the judicial process is easily swayed by political demands. Common criminals, as well as political dissidents, are often the victims of miscarriages of justice, with almost no hope of a successful appeal.