GENEVA (AP) — The U.N. human rights chief on Tuesday called on China to immediately release all lawyers it has in detention, after raising concerns with Chinese authorities over a crackdown against government critics, legal experts and advocacy groups in recent months.
Zeid Raad al-Hussein pointed to a "worrying pattern" in China, and noted that states have a duty to protect lawyers, journalists, members of non-governmental groups and other parts of civil society that do "important work" in the country.
The office of Zeid, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement that police have detained about 250 human rights lawyers, legal assistants and activists since July, though many have since been released.
"Lawyers should never have to suffer prosecution or any other kind of sanctions or intimidation for discharging their professional duties," Zeid said. "I urge the government of China to release all of them immediately and without conditions."
Rupert Colville, a spokesman for Zeid's office, said it has had a "constant stream of communications on these issues" with China over the last few months — mainly through China's mission in Geneva — including a response received from the Chinese government over the weekend.
"It suggested, basically, that all the people we raise concerns about were guilty of criminal activities," Colville said in summarizing the Chinese response letter, which he declined to provide to a reporter. "It's a kind of reflexive response, which doesn't really address the core issues."
In the statement, Zeid also expressed concern about recent disappearances of booksellers from Hong Kong, and noted that leading human rights lawyers Li Heping and Wang Yu are among those who face a "subversion of state power" charge.