GENEVA (Reuters) - China hit back at U.N. criticism of its human rights record on Tuesday, saying a group of detained lawyers had committed serious economic crimes and missing Hong Kong bookseller Lee Bo was assisting a police enquiry and did not want publicity.
“Lee repeatedly clarified that he voluntarily went back to mainland China for assisting in the investigation, and is safe and sound,” China’s mission in Geneva said in a statement.
“Lee hopes that the general public respect his personal choice and privacy and do not hype up attention on the case.”
Another bookseller, Gui Minhai, had left the country in 2004 after being handed a suspended sentence for killing a student by drunk driving, but gave himself up to police last October, and was also involved in other crimes, the statement said.
Foreign diplomats have said Gui and Lee were believed to have been abducted or coerced from Thailand and Hong Kong respectively, and taken to China. Three others also went missing.
Lee holds a British passport, while Gui is a naturalized Swedish citizen.
Asked about the latest Chinese statement on Lee, the British Embassy in Beijing referred Reuters to comments last week by British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who said Lee had probably been “involuntarily removed” to China from Hong Kong.
China said Gui’s case was complicated and involved all the other booksellers, who were being held for investigation.
Earlier on Tuesday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, had voiced concern for the booksellers, and also urged China to release all lawyers detained in a crackdown that began last July.
Chinese police have detained about 250 human rights lawyers, legal assistants, and activists across the country, although the U.N. statement said many had subsequently been released.
China said all the cases raised by Zeid involved criminal activities and had nothing to do with restricting rights.
“The Chinese Mission expresses strong dissatisfaction and disagreement with the High Commissioner’s misleading remarks,” it said.
The case of the “so-called ‘lawyers’” had been a crackdown on a major criminal gang for seriously disturbing social order, and the criminal facts were “clear with conclusive evidence”, it said.
The gang had used the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm to organize crimes such as breaking into public security, procuratorial and judicial organs and courts, and gathering crowds and making disturbances in public venues, severely disrupting social order and judicial process, it said.
They had also incited people to make harassing phone calls to government officials and to insult, slander, threaten and intimidate judges and police on duty, the statement said.
“They were also involved in serious economic crimes including misappropriating company assets, tax evasion and fraud.”
Another case, against a group of labor activists in the southern province of Guangdong, involved people using overseas funds to intervene in Chinese labor disputes, and some accusations of fraud, adultery and embezzlement, China said.
Reporting by Tom Miles in London; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Sandra Maler and Clarence Fernandez