China has released information on 56 political prisoners. Analysts believe Chinese leaders made the move in a bid to mute criticism of their rights record ahead of a major meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission.
The Dui Hua Foundation, a human rights advocacy group, says China's Justice Ministry sent it a list of 56 people who have been imprisoned on charges ranging from espionage and endangering state security to engaging in separatist activities.
The rare list contains details such as names, charges, ethnicity and places of detention of the prisoners, who range from Tibetan nuns to people accused of spying for Taiwan. The San Francisco foundation says all those on the list have been, or will soon be, released from detention.
Analysts note that the decision to release information on the prisoners comes shortly ahead of the annual meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, which runs from March 14 to April 22.
It also coincides with European Union deliberations on whether to lift a weapons embargo imposed on China after the violent crackdown on student demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Nicholas Becquelin of the Human Rights in China group sees the timing of the release of information on the prisoners as no coincidence.
"The Chinese government goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid being criticized at the commission, which is the highest human rights body internationally,” he explained. “Not only do they make a lot of effort to prevent being the object of a resolution expressing concern about the human rights situation in China at the commission, but they want to preclude the possibility that any member state of the commission tables [presents] a resolution, even if the resolution is not adopted."
Washington says it has not yet decided whether to condemn China's rights record at this year's meeting. Last year, the Bush administration accused China of backsliding on commitments to improve its record, prompting Beijing to suspend its human rights dialogue with the United States.
U.S. diplomats in Beijing said they had seen the list that was sent to the Dui Hua Foundation, but had no comment on it.
For China, avoiding criticism of its human rights record is essential to improving its international image and pursuing its strategic interests - one of which is to get the European weapons embargo lifted.
China has intensified its lobbying efforts by signing trade deals with Europe, promoting cooperation and stepping up diplomatic pressure.
Last week, Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan reiterated China's claim that the embargo is an anachronism. He avoided any mention of its link to the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Mr. Kong says China regards the arms embargo as an outdated product of the Cold War that is not in keeping with China's current strategic partnership with the European Union.
U.S. officials oppose lifting the embargo, fearing that China will use European weapons to attack Taiwan.
Tensions have risen across the Taiwan Strait since Chen Shui-bian was re-elected president last year. Beijing opposes Mr. Chen, saying he advocates the island's formal independence.