BEIJING - Human rights groups urged President Bush Tuesday to press Chinese President Jiang Zemin to free political prisoners and curb abuses against a Muslim ethnic group when the leaders meet in Texas this week.
A group of followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, banned in China since 1999, also said they were taking legal action against Jiang through the United Nations for crimes committed during a crackdown on their faith.
But analysts said Bush was expected to soft pedal on the sensitive issue of human rights to secure China's acquiescence to U.S. plans for possible military action against Iraq.
Jiang headed for the United States Tuesday and is due to meet Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Friday, two weeks before he is expected to step down as Communist Party chief.
China has released a string of Tibetan political prisoners this year in what analysts see as an attempt to clear the air for the summit. Last week, it freed Tibetan nun Ngawang Sangdrol, 25, the Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed on Tuesday.
But critics say such releases are a cynical ploy and do not reflect an improvement of the overall rights situation in China.
“Releasing just a few political prisoners does not constitute significant human rights progress, although we'll welcome it if happens,” Mike Jendrzejczyk, director for Asia for the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
“But releasing all of China's political prisoners would really be a significant way to mark Jiang's upcoming retirement as president and leader of the Communist Party.”
Rights activists and some Western diplomats are concerned by a U.S. decision to add to its terrorist list an ethnic Uighur group China brands as a terrorist organization fighting for a Muslim state in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang.
“Bush should make it clear that by designating one Uighur group as a terrorist organization, the United States is not giving China a blank check to simply label Uighurs as terrorists and then arrest them,” said Jendrzejczyk.
Eight Falun Gong members said in a statement they had submitted their case against Jiang and two other Chinese leaders Monday to the U.N. Committee Against Torture, the U.N. Human Rights Committee and the International Criminal court.
The statement said they had faced kidnapping, prolonged incarceration, extortion, forced labor, beatings, torture, sexual assault and the murder of family members as a result of the campaign against Falun Gong.
“We are merely a cross section of the millions who have been affected,” it quoted plaintiff Zenon Dolnyckyj, a Canadian citizen, as saying.
“Today's submission marks the beginning of international legal action against those responsible for the brutal and unlawful persecution of Falun Gong in China.”
Falun Gong practices a mixture of Taoism, Buddhism, Chinese exercises and its founder's ideas. China banned the group after thousands of followers staged a peaceful demonstration in Beijing to demand recognition of their faith.
Falun Gong members have embarrassed several senior Chinese officials by issuing them with writs while traveling overseas.
The London-based group Amnesty International urged the Chinese government and parliament to improve legal protection, prevent torture and abolish two systems of administrative detention.
Hundreds of thousands of people suffered human rights violations because they lacked legal protection and China had no independent judiciary, the rights group said in a statement.
“In the current economic and social climate in China, violations on this scale cannot be ignored for much longer if China is to continue to develop in a stable social environment,” the statement said.
The New York-based Human Rights in China group urged Bush to ask Jiang to allow dissident Fang Jue to go to the United States.
Fang, 47, a former Chinese government official and democracy activist, was released in July after four years in detention on charges of fraud he says were trumped up for political reasons.
But police had not returned his identification papers and refused to give him a passport to go to the United States despite a U.S. embassy request, the group said in a statement.
The group also raised the case of Yin Jin, a former reporter for the Hainan Economic Times, who it said was jailed for 13 months after the crackdown on democracy protests around Tiananmen Square in 1989 and served another three years in labor camps.
His 73-year-old mother and 12-year-old daughter had been given permission to emigrate to Sweden eight years ago but had yet to be granted Chinese passports, it said.