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U.N. denounces China crackdown on lawyers, seeks release

GENEVA/BEIJING (Reuters) - The United Nations human rights office on Friday denounced China’s “ongoing crackdown” and detention of lawyers and activists and called on authorities to release all those being held for exercising what it called fundamental freedoms.

It voiced concern at reports that defence lawyer Chen Jiangang and his family were taken by police on Wednesday while travelling in the southwest province of Yunnan. His whereabouts are unknown, though his wife and two children were released.

Chen represents Xie Yang, a lawyer in custody since July 2015 whose trial had been due to begin last week on charges of inciting subversion and disrupting court order, U.N. human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said in Geneva.

“Prior to being reportedly taken by police last Wednesday, Chen had, in a video message, expressed concerns that he too may ‘lose his freedom’ and that he may be coerced into self-incrimination,” Shamdasani told a news briefing.

“We are dismayed by this continuing pattern of harassment of lawyers, through continued detention, without full due process guarantees and with alleged exposure to ill-treatment and coercion into self-incrimination,” she said.

The vast majority of detained lawyers were defending citizens’ basic economic, social and cultural rights, she added.

China’s Ministry of Public Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Thursday, dozens of Chinese rights lawyers and activists called for Chen’s immediate release. They issued their call in a letter they signed and circulated on instant messaging platforms.

In March, state media accused Chen along with another prominent rights lawyer, Jiang Tianyong, of fabricating detailed accounts of torture suffered by Xie Yang, saying they had made up “fake news” to grab international headlines.

Chen at the time told Reuters that the accounts were genuine, saying he had interviewed Xie in rooms filled with cameras.

Dozens of rights lawyers and a handful of foreign diplomats travelled to central China’s Changsha city on April 25 after reports that Xie would stand trial that day, but authorities told them the trial was not taking place.

On the same day, a court in Tianjin city near Beijing jailed another prominent rights lawyer, Li Heping, for three years for subverting state power in what his wife called a “secret” trail.

Since 2015, dozens of people linked to a Beijing law firm have been detained or prosecuted by the authorities in a crackdown on dissent.

China consistently rejects criticism of its human rights record and says it is a country ruled by law.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in GENEVA and Christian Shepherd in BEIJING; Editing by Ralph Boulton, Robert Birsel