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China jailing more political dissidents: Human rights report finds rising numbers held, especially in Tibet

WHILE China's economic reforms were forging ahead, 1993 was at the same time the worst year for political arrests and trials in China since mid- 1990, particularly in Tibet.

According to a study, (Detained in China and Tibet: A Directory of Political and Religious Prisoners. Published by Asia Watch, a division of Human Rights Watch), published today by Asia Watch, the independent New York- based human rights organisation, 'China's record for 1993 speaks for itself: accountability was minimal, access was nil and a handful of releases were accompanied by a wave of new arrests. In retrospect, it looks more like regress than progress.'

Accurate information about political and religious detainees in China is extremely difficult and risky to obtain and any list is bound to be an under-estimate. Nevertheless, Asia Watch has compiled information on some 1,700 people known or believed to be presently imprisoned in connection with their political, ethnic or religious views. About 1,230 of these are detained or convicted solely on account of non-violent beliefs or activities.

The dissident cases range from those arrested during the late 1970s to people picked up just last month. Asia Watch's information about last year's arrests shows how economic liberalisation in China has not yet been accompanied by any loosening up on the political front. Overall, the situation was the worst since the crackdown after the June 1989 pro- democracy movement.

Asia Watch documented nearly 250 new political arrests and trials, and a further 140 cases where names were unknown. Against this, just 37 dissidents were released, including several high-profile individuals, such as Wei Jingsheng, who were let out in the run-up to the vote on whether Peking would host the 2,000 Olympics.

Of the detailed 250 cases last year, about 80 per cent occurred in Tibet where the Chinese government intensified its campaign against peaceful pro-independence activities by Buddhist monks and nuns. Most of those imprisoned Tibetans have been convicted of 'counter-revolution'; according to official statements, the proportion of 'counter-revolutionaries' to common criminals in Tibetan jails today is more than 20 times higher than in the rest of China.

Asia Watch has also attempted to assemble a sub-list of all those in China specifically detained as 'counter-revolutionaries', where 10 out of 12 of the charges can carry the death penalty. So far, Asia Watch's list includes more than 1,200 names; Chinese officials last year admitted to 3,317 imprisoned 'counter-revolutionaries'. This latter figure would not include those sentenced without trial to labour re-education.

The Asia Watch report coincides with the start of serious debate in Washington over whether China's Most-Favoured Nation (MFN) trading status should be renewed in June. Last year, President Bill Clinton made renewal conditional on wide-ranging human rights improvements, including greater religious freedom in Tibet and access to political prisoners.

On Asia Watch's 'priority list', which it suggests should be the yardstick for judging overall human rights progress, are almost 100 non-violent political, ethnic or religious prisoners, most of whom were sentenced during the past five years, all serving terms of 10 years to life imprisonment.

The low standards of judicial practice in China, where verdicts are often pre-determined, confessions obtained through torture and there is no real chance of appeal, mean that even those supposedly convicted for criminal acts may have been subject to very rough justice because of their political views. Asia Watch has therefore documented a further 460 people detained or convicted for such criminal acts allegedly committed during pro-democracy or religious activities.

Asia Watch is calling for adequate accounting for the status and whereabouts of all those on its lists, and also for the government to supply copies of court verdicts or police sentencing documents.

(Detained in China and Tibet: A Directory of Political and Religious Prisoners. Published by Asia Watch, a division of Human Rights Watch)