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U.N.: Terror war may lead China to muzzle dissenters

The top U.N. human rights official expressed concern here on Friday that the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism had given license to the Chinese government to intensify a crackdown against its Muslim minority and members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual group.

"Because of the coalition to curb terrorism, governments are not as prepared to raise issues of human rights," said Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, at the end of a two-day visit here. "That is my job."

Robinson said that in her meeting with China's top leaders, including President Jiang Zemin, she had raised a number of human rights concerns, from the use of torture by police to extract confessions to the widespread use of the death penalty.

This year, in the middle of a government-sponsored campaign against crime, she said, there was evidence that large numbers of people had been executed after quick and cursory trials.

Still, she said that she continued to see a greater willingness on the part of the Chinese government to discuss human rights issues.

During her visit, the U.N. group and the Chinese government signed an agreement to work together on a program of human rights education for the police, judges, prison administrators and lawyers.

"There is a recognition of serious problems and an openness in addressing them," she said.

"But in dealing with individual cases there is much less progress and indeed there has been some movement in the wrong direction."

One of her more pressing concerns, she said, was reports from rights groups that Chinese Muslims of the Uighur ethnic minority had been increasingly subjected to detention and abuse by the police since China joined the coalition against terrorism.

Uighurs, who mostly live in Xinjiang province, have long chafed under heavy-handed rule from Beijing and have pressed for more autonomy. A tiny radical movement has undertaken rare acts of violence in pursuit of that goal, mostly car bombings.

Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen told Robinson that the government thinks that 1,000 Uighurs have trained in Afghanistan in al-Qaida camps. But scholars here and in the West say that Uighurs have little interest in Taliban-style fundamentalism and have put the number of al-Qaida trainees much lower, perhaps in the dozens.

Another major issue was China's continued unwillingness to allow the U.N. rapporteur on torture, Nigel Rodley, to visit China on terms the organization considered acceptable. Rodley wanted to visit prisons unannounced and to interview detainees in private, without police officials present.

Rodley leaves his post in a few days, but Robinson said the Chinese agreed to continue discussing a visit with his successor.

In her discussions with top leaders, Robinson also brought up a few cases of individuals who she thought had been unjustly imprisoned. These included two Chinese journalists, a member of Falun Gong and the Chinese dissident, Xu Wenli, who has been in prison since 1988 when he was sentenced to 13 years in jail for his role in organizing a fledging alternative political party.

Xu's wife says he is ill with hepatitis, although Chinese officials insist that he is well.

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