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Protests timed to embarrass China's leader

A well-timed campaign by the families of imprisoned dissidents and activist groups has focused attention on China's political prisoners ahead of today's meeting in New York between President Jiang Zemin and President Bill Clinton. Exiled Chinese and Tibetans in the United States also plan protests to coincide with the talks.

Yesterday, Wang Zhihong was spending her second night in detention after the family of her sick and imprisoned husband, Chen Ziming, staged a public protest on Sunday in Peking. Mr Chen's parents and sister held a sit-in at a park, holding his framed photograph, and read out a statement demanding proper medical treatment for the prisoner.

The wife of Liu Nianchun, an activist who disappeared in May without explanation, has also been lobbying for his release and is now under police surveillance. Two groups of mainland activists have sent open letters to Mr Jiang urging the release of all political prisoners. In Germany, the sister of Wei Jingsheng, China's most prominent dissident and a nominee for this year's Nobel Peace Prize, has written to Mr Clinton asking him to press for Mr Wei's release.

Mr Chen, 43, who suffers from cancer and hepatitis, was sentenced to 13 years as one of the "black hands" of the June 1989 pro-democracy movement. He was given medical bail a year ago, but was re-arrested in June and his health is believed to have deteriorated.

In the US, Wang Juntao, a friend of Mr Chen who was also sentenced as an alleged "black hand" but last year allowed to leave China, has planned a hunger strike outside the UN in the hope of boosting international pressure for Mr Chen's release. Other "welcoming committees" for Mr Jiang include a group of six exiled Tibetans on hunger strike over China's presence in Tibet.

Members of China's dissident network who are in detention have become skilful at timing their rare protests. The New York-based Human Rights in China said yesterday nine activists in Sichuan province had issued a signed open letter calling on Mr Jiang "to pay attention to the human rights situation , which has continued to worsen in the past year". It called for "political tolerance". Last week a similar open letter was released by 12 signatories in Zhejiang province.