By Ben Blanchard and Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - China rebuked the United States on Friday for urging the release of activists detained after attending a meeting about the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, saying Washington had no right to demand that criminals be freed.
Wednesday's call by the U.S. State Department to release prominent rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and others drew a sharp riposte from China's foreign ministry, which regards U.S. expressions of concern as unwarranted interference in its internal affairs.
"I want to ask the US spokesperson, what qualification does she have to demand that China's government release Chinese people who have broken or infringed on Chinese laws and rules?" China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, asked.
"We hope that the U.S. side stops these unreasonable words and deeds which interfere in China's internal affairs and judicial sovereignty," Hua told a daily news briefing.
The U.S. criticism comes at a particularly sensitive time for China.
Its recent detention of six activists, including lawyers, professors and journalists, adds to evidence that Chinese leaders are determined to continue a clampdown on dissent ahead of the 25th anniversary of the crushing of demonstrations around Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 4, 1989.
Pu had "clearly crossed the red line of law" for attending the event to commemorate the 1989 protests, "related to the most sensitive political issue in China", the Global Times, an influential tabloid run by the Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper, the People's Daily, said on Thursday.
The government was clearly using political reasons to detain the activists, said dissident artist Ai Weiwei, Pu's most high-profile client.
"The signal that can be read from this action is that (the government) wants to prohibit any person from referring to the event that happened 25 years ago in any way," Ai told Reuters in an interview in his Beijing studio.
Bao Tong, the most senior Chinese official jailed over the 1989 Tiananmen protests, said authorities had warned him in February not to agree to journalists' requests for interviews on the June 4 protests and have barred reporters from meeting him at home.
"I really don't know what they are afraid of, I think they shouldn't be afraid," Bao, the most trusted aide of former Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang, who was purged for opposing the Tiananmen crackdown, said in a telephone interview.
"If you're afraid of people talking about June 4, then your best solution is to resolve June 4," Bao said. "Tell the truth clearly about the June 4 issue: where were the mistakes and who was responsible."
Bao said Gao Yu, a journalist authorities accuse of passing on state secrets to foreign contacts, was a friend of his and "spoke whatever she thought". "I think that's the reason for her disappearance," Bao said, before Gao's detention.
Gao was the latest activist detained by Chinese authorities. State media aired images of her confessing.
Many rights groups have called the crackdown on free expression one of the worst in recent years, with some saying the pressure brought on rights activists is unprecedented.
"For the people who have been engaged in activism in the past year, there is a palpable sense that things have gotten dramatically worse," said Maya Wang, a China researcher with New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
(Additional reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)