World News

China tells U.S. not to interfere after call for release of rights lawyers

BEIJING (Reuters) - China on Thursday criticised the United States for calling for the release of several detained human rights lawyers, asking it to refrain from interference, in the latest instance of friction over a thorny issue in relations.

China has arrested nine lawyers, most of them on subversion charges, in recent days, rights group Chinese Human Rights Defenders says. Subversion charges are commonly levelled against critics of one-party rule.

The United States is concerned about China’s ongoing crackdown on human rights lawyers, U.S. State Department Deputy spokesman Mark Toner said on Wednesday.

“The United States urges China to drop these charges and immediately release these lawyers, and others like them, detained for seeking to protect the rights of Chinese citizens,” Toner told a regular news briefing.

On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily briefing, “Foreign governments should respect China’s judicial sovereignty and refrain from interfering”.

The issue of human rights has long been a source of tension between the world’s two largest economies.

Last July, Chinese police detained and questioned hundreds of human rights lawyers in an unprecedented nationwide sweep, rights groups say.

Separately, referring to a Swedish man China detained last week on suspicion of acts detrimental to national security, Hong reiterated that China would facilitate Swedish embassy officials in carrying out consular work.

The Swedish Foreign Ministry said its embassy had not been allowed to meet Peter Dahlin, the 35-year-old co-founder of the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, a human rights NGO.

Sweden said it had summoned the Chinese ambassador over the case on Jan. 8, a meeting that also touched on the disappearance of a Swedish citizen in Thailand, who is one of several missing publishers and book vendors with business in Hong Kong.

“The Chinese government, Chinese judicial departments, and the relevant Chinese authorities will safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of foreign citizens in China, in accordance with the law,” Hong said.

Hong said he had no knowledge of the disappearance of the Swedish bookseller in Thailand.

Reporting by Megha Rajagopalan; Writing by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Clarence Fernandez