Chinese try to calm fears over ill dissident



Wei Jingsheng, China's most prominent pro-democracy dissident, is in good health apart from hypertension and "a fatty liver", the Chinese government announced yesterday. The unusual medical bulletin on the country's best-known political prisoner followed reports from relatives that Mr Wei, who is 46, was suffering from heart disease, and comes just weeks before China is likely to face attempted censure at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

Last November, the closed court trial of Mr Wei had to be halted for nearly half an hour when he suffered an attack of high blood pressure. The judges later sentenced him to 14 years for attempting to overthrow the government, and since January he has been kept in solitary confinement at the Nanpu saltworks about three hours' drive from Peking, occupying the same cell in which he spent the latter part of his earlier 14-year jail term. Since March 1979, Mr Wei has spent only six months out of prison.

Support is growing around the world for Mr Wei's nomination for this year's Nobel Peace Prize. Yesterday, 110 British MPs from all parties signed a Commons motion calling for his immediate release from prison and backing the Nobel nomination. He was also nominated in 1995.

The Xinhua news agency announcement appeared timed for the run-up to the Geneva vote. Since 1990, China has faced an annual motion, sponsored by the United States, condemning its human-rights record, although these have so far been defeated because China has lobbied support from developing countries. Mr Wei's sentence, the dispute over the choice of a new Panchen Lama in Tibet, and revelations this year on China's orphanages have put the human-rights spotlight firmly on Peking.

Xinhua said that Mr Wei had been given a thorough physical examination, including an electrocardiogram and 24-hour monitoring which had ruled out heart disease. "The prison hospital has treated Wei Jingsheng's diseases and he is now in a healthy condition," Xinhua said.

Meanwhile, new legislation was yesterday passed into law, specifying that martial law may be declared in the case of serious threats to national unity.

Analysts said the Chinese government wanted the law on the statute books before the death of 91-year-old Deng Xiaoping in case of public unrest after the paramount leader passes away.