U.N.: China confused about legitimate role of lawyers

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Story highlights

  • U.N. expresses concern over crackdown on lawyers and government critics
  • Calls on China to release detained human rights lawyers
  • Says China too often confuses the legitimate role of lawyers with threats to public order

Hong Kong (CNN)The United Nations human rights chief has expressed concern over China's mounting crackdown on lawyers and government critics, describing recent arrests of activists as a "very worrying pattern."

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner, urged China to immediately release a group of detained human rights lawyers.
Chinese authorities launched a crackdown on lawyers and their relatives last July, interrogating and detaining more than 200 across the country.
Many have since been released but ten face charges for "subversion of state power," a crime carrying a sentence of 15 years in prison.
Zeid said in a statement that he had discussed the matter with Chinese officials and felt they "too often reflexively confuse the legitimate role of lawyers and activists with threats to public order and security."
He also raised three other concerning issues:
The disappearances of five people connected to a Hong Kong publishing house; the arrest and televised confession of a Swedish legal-aid worker and an upcoming law that would impact the operation of non-government organizations.
The five booksellers worked at a Hong Kong company that specializes in publishing gossipy books about the Chinese Communist Party leadership.
The Chinese government has confirmed four are currently under investigation in China and one is "voluntarily" assisting in an investigation. Critics of the arrests feel the men are being targeted because of their criticism of the government.
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The disappearances sparked protests in Hong Kong, where they were seen as violations of the city's autonomous status. The former British colony is part of China but is not subject to the mainland's restrictions on free speech or the press, under an arrangement known as "one country, two systems."
China disagreed with the High Commissioner's remarks, describing them as "misleading" in a lengthy statement addressing each case from the spokesperson of China's Permanent Mission to the U.N. in Geneva
"We hope that Mr. Hussein as U.N. human rights chief could view China's human rights in a comprehensive, objective and rational manner, rather than a biased, subjective and selective way," the Chinese statement said.
The U.N. is not alone in expressing increasing concern over China's treatment of activists and lawyers. The European Union and U.S. State Department have voiced similar sentiments.