China authorities raid office of human rights, legal advisory group

Beijing quelling dissent for visit by U.N. official


BEIJING - Chinese police raided the office of an American-financed human rights group shortly before the arrival of the U.N. human rights chief yesterday, as authorities sought to keep a rein on dissent during the visit.

Police searched the offices and copied computer files at the Empowerment and Rights Institute, a leading legal and human rights advisory group, employees and visitors to the offices said.

The group's director, Hou Wenzhuo, said that as many as 10 plainclothes and uniformed police came to her home as well but did not arrest her.

The raid came shortly before Louise Arbour, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, arrived in Beijing to discuss China's rights record with senior Communist Party officials.

Hou said she had hoped to meet with Arbour to present evidence she has collected about human rights abuses.

Her group has documented what Hou described as systematic suppression of people who complain about such problems as land confiscation and police torture.

Hou said she feared that the police could potentially take further action to prevent her from meeting with Arbour and to punish her and her associates for accumulating records of rights abuses.

Dozens of intellectuals, lawyers, journalists and human-rights activists, including Hou, signed a letter to Arbour last week asking her help "in defending the basic human rights of Chinese citizens."

The letter requested that Arbour meet with private groups involved in human rights during her five-day stay in China.

"Many people who care about civil society in China had high hopes for the visit" by Arbour, Hou said. "But the authorities do not want free discussion of China's rights abuses."

The United Nations said a primary focus of Arbour's visit is to press China to make changes to its legal system and to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

China signed the human rights covenant, considered a milestone in efforts to standardize respect for rights globally, in 1998.

That paved the way for the first visit to China by a U.N. high commissioner for human rights.

But China has yet to join 154 other countries in ratifying the covenant and would have to make changes to its judicial processes to comply with its requirements.

U.N. officials said Arbour also intends to discuss police torture, arbitrary detention and the heavy use of the death penalty.

Some legal experts have argued that China has begun to take small but promising steps toward respecting individual rights, partly as a way of improving its image before it acts as host for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

But a rash of social unrest around the country in recent years - China experienced at least 74,000 protest incidents in 2004, according to the police - has prompted authorities to sharply curtail grassroots activist groups and harass or arrest rights workers.

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