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US Urges China to Drop Charges Against Jailed Rights Activist

The United States Friday called on Chinese authorities to drop criminal charges against a jailed Chinese activist who has exposed abuses of the country's population-control programs. The State Department also voiced concern about the detention of attorneys defending the blind human rights campaigner, Chen Guangcheng.

The State Department is strongly criticizing China's treatment of blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng, saying the handling of his case calls into question the country's commitment to the rule of law.

The 34-year-old self-taught legal activist has been in detention or under house arrest for nearly a year after gaining international attention for exposing official abuses of China's policy limiting most families to one child.

Chen's documentation of cases of forced late-term abortions and compulsory sterilizations prompted the government to launch an investigation that reportedly led to the removal of some local officials for exceeding their authority in the birth-control drive.

But the affair apparently landed him in trouble with provincial authorities, and he was charged in June with destroying public property and disrupting traffic in what supporters say is a politically motivated case.

His trial began this week in the city of Linyi, but was thrown into disarray when officials detained his main defense lawyer and barred courtroom access to two others.

At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey said U.S. diplomats have strongly protested the treatment of Chen and his defense team, and said it "certainly" calls into question China's commitment to the rule of law, in this case and more broadly.

He also said the United States shares the concern of Chen's family and supporters about the validity of the charges against him, and urges that they be dropped. "I think to say the least they appear highly questionable to us, as do some of the charges of petty theft that we understand have been leveled against his attorneys now,” said Casey. “So at this point, what we're doing is again urging the Chinese government to respect the rights of their citizens to advocate peacefully for rights of their fellow citizens. Certainly not only in China but any place around the world, no one should suffer for simply expressing their views, for raising concerns about government policies."

The Bush administration has long been critical of what it considers China's coercive approach to birth control, and has withheld some funding from the United Nations' population agency because it cooperates with programs in China that U.S. officials say promote abortion.

On a visit to China earlier this month, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Ellen Sauerbrey raised the case of Chen Guangcheng, and renewed U.S. concerns about Chinese policy.

She said the United States and China are members of the U.N. Commission on Population and Development, which maintains that families have a right to make their own decisions on the number of children they will have.

Sauerbrey said the United States encourages China at every opportunity to live up to that commitment, and not involve itself in coercive measures.