BEIJING The European Union on Friday delivered some of its strongest criticism yet of China's human rights record, calling the televised broadcasts of confessions by Chinese and European citizens "unacceptable".
The comments prompted a rebuke from China, which consistently rejects any criticism of its human rights record.
In a statement on its website, the 28-member bloc's delegation to China said the disappearance of several Hong Kong booksellers, including a British and a Swedish passport holder, was part of a "worrying trend".
China this week expelled Peter Dahlin, a Swedish national who had been taken into custody this month on suspicion of acts detrimental to the country's national security, after rights groups criticised his televised confession, saying it appeared to have been made under duress.
The footage of Dahlin came two days after naturalised Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, who had vanished in October in Thailand, appeared on Chinese state television, saying he had surrendered to authorities over a fatal drink-driving offence more than a decade ago.
Gui's colleague, Lee Bo, a dual Hong Kong and British passport holder, vanished in late December amid widespread speculation that Chinese authorities may have abducted him.
On Sunday, Lee's wife said he was "assisting in an investigation in the capacity of a witness" in the mainland.
The EU said the cases called "into question China's respect for the rule of law and for its international human rights obligations, not least freedom of speech".
"The public broadcasting of so-called 'confessions' by Chinese and EU citizens is unacceptable," the EU said.
Asked to respond to the EU statement, China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said she had not seen it, but added that it was "not constructive".
"We firmly oppose foreign delegations making statements with irresponsible criticism about China's handling of judicial matters," Hua said at a daily news briefing.
Critics say a series of recent televised confessions of detained suspects deprive the accused of the right to a fair trial.
Chinese authorities have not responded to multiple requests for comment from Reuters, nor have they made any substantial statements explaining Beijing's role in the disappearances nor the fate of the men.
China's foreign minister has insisted that Lee is first and foremost a Chinese citizen, and sources have told Reuters that efforts by foreign governments to get information on Lee and Gui have been met with silence.
(This story has been refiled to drop repeated "slams" from headline)
(Reporting by Michael Martina, Editing by Sui-Lee Wee)