China: Human Rights Workers Treated Like "Criminals," Report Says

Women hide faces during China crackdown prostitutes
Women during a police crackdown on prostitution in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, September 12, 2012. China should remove criminal penalties against sex workers which often lead to serious police abuses, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on May 14, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer

Updated | China is treating human rights workers like "criminals," according to a report which points to an increased government crackdown on civil liberties.

The report, produced by the Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a coalition of Chinese and international human rights non-governmental organizations, details the imprisonment and torture of rights workers and activists in 2016.

Beijing has implemented a raft of "draconian laws" giving police greater power to criminalize human rights activities, the coalition says.

"The Chinese government seems intent on eliminating civil society through a combination of new legislation restricting the funding and operations of NGOs, and the criminalization of human rights activities as a so-called threat to national security," Frances Eve, a researcher at CHRD, told The Guardian.

"What stands out is the almost institutionalised use of torture to force defenders to confess that their legitimate and peaceful human rights work is somehow a 'crime'," Eve added.

The report highlights "forced TV confessions," referring to the prominent case of Swedish lawyer Peter Dahlin, who was paraded on television after weeks in detention and allegedly told to admit he had harmed the Chinese government.

Such practices are damning for China's reputation, according to an anonymous humans rights lawyer cited in the report. "It might seem that the confessor is humiliated in front of the world, but it's really the government's image and the nation's dignity that suffer the most."

The Chinese government has also rolled out "draconian" measures against citizens' right to freedom of association, the report states. A number of rights NGOs, including groups advocating health rights, women's rights and LGBT rights, had remained shut down in 2016 after being closed in previous years, while others were allowed to operate on a drastically reduced scale, under police monitoring.

Although the government's actions defy United Nations independent experts' demands to improve its record on civil liberties, U.N. Member States re-elected China to the Human Rights Council for another term in October 2016, the report adds.

China's human rights violations have been widely criticized by rights groups. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported last year that torture was still "routine" in Chinese jails. In a statement on its website, the rights group says the Chinese government has "detained and prosecuted hundreds of activists and human rights defenders" since President Xi Jinping assumed power.

"The government has moved to tighten control over nongovernmental organizations, activists, and the media through a slew of new laws that cast activism and peaceful criticism of the government as state security threats," the statement said. "The "Great Firewall" used to censor the Internet has been expanded. Despite legislation to curb...torture in custody, police and interrogators have found ways to evade legal protections."

HRW spokesperson Maya Wang told Newsweek, "The human rights environment in China has significantly deteriorated under President Xi. We have observed alarming backsliding on a wide variety of rights. Despite President Xi's praise for 'openness' in Davos, his domestic policy has been one of increasing repression instead."

This article has been updated with a quote from HRW.