GENEVA (Reuters) - The top United Nations human rights official urged China on Tuesday to release all lawyers detained since July, including 15 arrested last month, saying it was wrong to prosecute or sanction them for their work.
Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, also voiced concern for five missing booksellers from Hong Kong and urged Beijing authorities to ensure a "fair and transparent procedure" for their cases and allow family and lawyer visits.
"We are seeing a very worrying pattern in China that has serious implications for civil society and the important work they do across the country," Zeid said in a statement, voicing fears that a Chinese draft law on non-governmental organizations would curb freedoms of expression and assembly.
"Lawyers should never have to suffer prosecution or any other kind of sanctions or intimidation for discharging their professional duties," Zeid said, adding that lawyers had an essential role to play in protecting human rights and the rule of law. “I urge the Government of China to release all of them immediately and without conditions.”
Chinese police have detained about 250 human rights lawyers, legal assistants, and activists across the country since a nationwide crackdown began last July, although the U.N. statement said many had subsequently been released.
It said that, in addition to these, 15 human rights lawyers had been formally arrested last month, 10 of them for the crime of “subversion of state power”, which carries a sentence of 15 years to life in prison.
Zeid's spokesman Rupert Colville told reporters that Chinese authorities had sent a letter last weekend in response to Zeid's queries: "It suggests basically that all people we raised concerns about were guilty of criminal activities. A kind of reflexive response that doesn't really address the core issue."
In a letter sent to Hong Kong's police on Thursday, Chinese police confirmed that three of the five missing Hong Kong booksellers were being investigated for "illegal activities" in China.
The booksellers' disappearance has prompted fears that mainland Chinese authorities may be using shadowy tactics that erode the "one country, two systems" formula under which Hong Kong has been governed since its return to China from British rule in 1997.
The China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, a Hong Kong-based rights group, says Chinese authorities have formally arrested 19 lawyers and activists, and that 266 have been temporarily detained and questioned in the crackdown.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Kevin Liffey