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Human Rights Watch Demands Release of Chinese Official

The U.S. based group Human Rights Watch is demanding that China release a health official who was reportedly jailed for releasing a document that blamed the government for an AIDS outbreak.

Human Rights Watch says authorities arrested Ma Shiwen in August for giving a copy of the report, which was considered classified, to AIDS activists.

Mr. Ma is deputy director of the Office of Disease Control in China's central Henan province.

Human Rights Watch quotes advocates in China as saying a local court in Henan sentenced him to at least eight years in prison.

It was in Henan that AIDS advocates say about one million people were infected with HIV as a result of a scheme in the 1990s in which dealers were buying infected blood, mixing it with healthy blood, and selling it.

Vanessa Saenen of Human Rights Watch says the Chinese government has never allowed for a full accounting of the incident.

"We've had instances of the provincial police expelling journalists and activists for trying to report on the AIDS problem," she said. "We've also seen that the Communist Party and authorities have harassed and threatened doctors in Henan who were trying to address the AIDS problem. At the moment, what they seem to be doing is targeting honest health officials rather than addressing the humanitarian catastrophe. "

In the report allegedly leaked by Mr. Ma, Henan health authorities blamed China's central government and others for the outbreak.

Chinese authorities have yet to confirm Mr. Ma's sentencing.

The allegations have again drawn attention to China's system of reporting disease figures, called into question this year when critics accused the government of trying to cover up the SARS outbreak.

After years of denying there was an AIDS epidemic, the government has only recently begun to publish figures on the number of cases. Recently, the Health Ministry reported close to a million Chinese are infected with HIV.

Even those working within China's government-supported health system question the official reporting practices. Dr. Cao Yunzhen is the deputy director of the AIDS Research Center at the Chinese Academy of Medical Science in Beijing.

"I went to different provinces, including the high-risk areas,"said Cao Yunzhen. "I know the real number of people suffering from HIV is much higher than the reported number, because we didn't do a whole-area screening. So I don't think anyone can say exactly the number of how many people in China there are who are HIV infected."

Observers and advocates say China will come under increasing pressure to improve its disease reporting system as it begins to seek donation money from the United States and other foreign sources for AIDS research and treatment.