WASHINGTON -- Human rights conditions have deteriorated in China with a "closing of space" for activists and lawyers, while Vietnam also continues to severely restrict freedom of expression, the U.S. State Department said May 24.
The judgments were made in the department's annual assessment of human rights in countries around the world, that also took aim in Asia at post civil-war Sri Lanka and vast penal labor camps in North Korea.
But the U.S. hailed "remarkable" improvements in military-dominated Myanmar, including releases of political prisoners and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's participation in April special elections. It held up the country also known as Burma as an example of reform that it hoped could inspire change in other closed societies.
The report, which covers 2011, singled out China as a place in Asia where things had gotten worse. The government exercised tight control over the Internet, stepped up efforts to silence political activists and resorted to extralegal measures, including enforced disappearance and house arrest of family members, the report said.
Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said the past several years have seen a "closing of space" for human rights lawyers and activists and China. He also voiced concern over repression of religious minorities and the self-immolations of Buddhist monks and nuns in Tibetan areas.
Among the Chinese activists singled out for mention in the report is blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who had campaigned against forced abortions and other abuses. His case has moved on dramatically since the report was drafted, following his escape from house arrest to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing last month. That triggered several days of frantic, closed-door diplomacy before Chen was allowed last week to travel to New York to study.
Posner said the U.S. was closely monitoring what is happening with Chen's elder brother and detained nephew, and lawyers and others who have supported them. But he stressed how the resolution of Chen's case demonstrated that the U.S. and China could address human rights without it derailing ties.
As its steps up engagement in Asia, the Obama administration has also cultivated relations with former enemy Vietnam. The report took aim at Vietnam's one-party rule and its restrictions on Internet content and bloggers. It criticized arbitrary arrests of peaceful activists and said more than 100 political detainees are currently held.
On North Korea, the report cited estimates that between 130,000-200,000 detainees are held in political, penal labor camps. It said based on satellite imagery, once such camp was thought to be 31 miles (50 kilometers) long and 25 miles (40 kilometers) wide and hold 50,000 inmates.
Defectors from the impoverished, closed country continued to report extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, severe punishment of some refugees and their family members repatriated after fleeing to China. It said many prisoners in political prison camps and the detention system were not expected to survive.
In Sri Lanka, the U.S. reported disappearances and killings by pro-government paramilitary groups, predominantly in minority ethnic Tamil areas. It referred to attacks, intimidation and harassment of civil society activists, journalists and persons viewed as sympathizers of the Tamil Tigers -- the rebel group that was crushed after a 26-year civil war that ended in 2009.
"A disproportionate number of victims of human rights abuses were Tamils," the report said.
In Indonesia, widely viewed as the most democratic country in Southeast Asia, the U.S. still cited major human rights problems, including continuing arbitrary and unlawful killings by security forces and others in the restive provinces of Papua and West Papua.
The report noted the escalation in another of the region's democracies, Thailand, of prosecutions under the tough lese-majeste law, which carries up to 15 years in prison for insults of the nation's top royalty.
In the decade before 2006, there had been about five cases on average annually, but in 2010 there were 478 new cases, and in the first 10 months of 2011, 85 new charges. It said the overall conviction rate remained nearly 100 percent.
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