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Report Cites ‘More Freedom’ for Chinese

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite Beijing’s often draconian punishment of dissenters, the average Chinese citizen enjoys “more personal freedom than ever before,” the State Department said Friday in its annual report on human rights conditions in 194 nations around the world.

The report was a striking reappraisal by the Clinton administration, which last year said China’s human rights record was so bad that all the government’s opponents were either in jail or in exile.

“There have been some positive developments,” Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck said at a news conference. “And these reports are always intended to reflect and encourage further positive developments when they actually occur.”

At the same time, he said, the Chinese regime remains repressive, limiting political activity, restricting religious observance and enforcing its rule with a harsh penal system marked by torture and forced confessions. And the report said conditions in Tibet were as bad as ever.

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In Hong Kong, which reverted to Chinese sovereignty on July 1, the report said fears that the new government would undermine fundamental human rights “to date . . . have been unfounded.”

“There has been some progress [in China], but certainly more progress is called for,” Shattuck said.

This year’s report also found improvement in the human rights records of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, Egypt, Guatemala and other countries that received very low marks last year.

The report was highly critical of Sudan, Iraq, Myanmar, Nigeria, Cuba, Belarus, Algeria, Afghanistan and Colombia, concluding that the level of repression reported last year had either remained the same in those countries or had worsened.

The department said Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s new president, “has publicly stated his intention to loosen constraints on freedom of expression, and some signs of this have been observed.” But the report said that, overall, Iran’s human rights record remains poor.

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Although Shattuck insisted that the report is “based entirely and exclusively on facts,” the department’s assessment often bolstered President Clinton’s foreign policy objectives.

For instance, Shattuck said conditions in Bosnia have improved markedly, primarily because of steps taken by the NATO-led multinational force. Clinton is seeking congressional approval to keep U.S. forces in Bosnia after next June, arguing that progress toward democracy there is “unmistakable but not yet irreversible.”

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“I believe when the dust settles, history will mark 1997 as the turning point toward peace and justice in Bosnia,” Shattuck said. “Through a series of elections, pluralism began to take hold in some Serb areas, and the Pale war criminals and hard-liners were increasingly isolated. More refugees began to return to their homes.”

He said the number of indicted war criminals in custody tripled, from eight to 24, last year.

Even so, the report said, serious problems continue in Bosnia. It acknowledged that the reduction in ethnic conflict “owed less to reconciliation than to the groups’ continuing separation.”

The report was the 21st since 1978. The department makes no attempt to rank nations on their adherence to human rights. Instead, each of the 194 countries was compared to its own previous record.

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This year the report contained expanded segments on two topics high on Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s priority list--religious liberty and women’s rights.

The department reported religious persecution in Sudan, where the Muslim-led government kills, imprisons and enslaves non-Muslims; in Iran, which sharply restricts the rights of non-Muslims; and in Saudi Arabia, where Islam is the only permitted religion.

It also said China sometimes jails people for religious activity outside the government-registered churches and mosques, although it reported early signs of what may turn out to be a relaxation of Chinese religious suppression.

The department reported violations of women’s rights in Bangladesh, Tanzania, Guinea-Bissau, Turkey, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and other countries.

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