China angrily rejected United Nations criticism of its human rights record on Tuesday, claiming that a group of detained lawyers had committed serious economic crimes and that the missing Hong Kong bookseller Lee Bo was assisting a police enquiry and did not want publicity.
"Lee repeatedly clarified that he voluntarily went back to mainland China for assisting in the investigation, and is safe and sound," China's mission in Geneva said in a statement.
"Lee hopes that the general public respect his personal choice and privacy and do not hype up attention on the case."
The UN's human rights chief criticized China on Tuesday for a stepped up crackdown that has targeted journalists and human rights proponents, and asked authorities in Beijing to share information in the cases of Bo and four other Hong Kong booksellers who disappeared in recent months. Chinese law enforcement had earlier said that three of the booksellers were being investigated for "illegal activities."
Since last June, "about 250 human rights lawyers, legal assistants, and activists across the country" have been detained, noted the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. While many of those arrested were subsequently released, High Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said unsuccessful efforts by the UN to determine information on their cases indicates that Chinese authorities "too often reflexively confuse the legitimate role of lawyers and activists with threats to public order and security."
"We are seeing a very worrying pattern in China that has serious implications for civil society and the important work they do across the country," said Zeid. "Civil society actors, from lawyers and journalists to NGO workers, have the right to carry out their work, and it is the State's duty to support and protect them."
In the past month, 15 human rights lawyers were arrested in China, 10 of whom were charged with "subversion of state power," a crime punishable by up to life in prison.
"Lawyers should never have to suffer persecution or any other kind of sanctions or intimidation for discharging their professional duties," said Zeid. "I urge the government of China to release all of them immediately and without conditions."
China said all the cases raised by Zeid involved criminal activities and had nothing to do with restricting rights.
"The Chinese Mission expresses strong dissatisfaction and disagreement with the High Commissioner's misleading remarks," it said. The case of the "so-called 'lawyers'" had been a crackdown on a major criminal gang for seriously disturbing social order, and the criminal facts were "clear with conclusive evidence," it said in a statement.
The gang had used the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm to organise crimes such as breaking into public security, procuratorial and judicial organs and courts, and gathering crowds and making disturbances in public venues, severely disrupting social order and judicial process, it alleged.
The UN human rights chief also expressed concerned about the disappearance and apparent detention of five booksellers since last October from Hong Kong's Causeway Bay Books, reportedly over the publication of texts seen as critical of the government in Beijing.
The most recent bookseller to go missing was Lee Bo, a British national, who was last seen in Hong Kong on December 30. Another, the Swedish national Gui Minhai, wasn't heard from after disappearing in Thailand in October until he was shown on Chinese state television in January confessing to a crime that dated to 2003. The other three, Lu Bo, Zhang Zhiping, and Lin Rongji, were last seen in China in October.
Peter Dahlin, a Swedish national and co-founder of the legal aid organization Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, was detained by Chinese authorities in January. He was charged with "endangering state security" and expelled from the country, but not before being brought onto state television, where he admitted to violating Chinese laws.
"I find this method of 'confession,' extracted during incommunicado detention and publicized on national television, very worrying," said Zeid. "It is a clear violation of the right to fair trial."
China said Gui's case was complicated and involved all the other booksellers, who were being held for investigation.
Carl Minzer, a law professor at Fordham University who specializes in the Chinese legal system, said that the parading of Gui and Dahlin harkened back to a period decades ago, before Beijing began implementing systematic reforms in the 1980s.
"In the Maoist era, people would be called before a mass public rally and made to confess for their crimes," said Minzer.
"Resorting to self-confession is a tactic we hadn't seen again until 2012," he added, referring to the year that current President Xi Jinping ascended to leadership of the country's Communist Party.
After a period of thaw, regressive trends in China's treatment of civil society began slowly more than a decade ago, but picked up after Xi took office. "It's definitely gotten worse," Minzer remarked. "The intensity has been ramped up on human rights lawyers, public interest advocates, and on civil society organizations."
The case of the booksellers has led to added concern among residents of Hong Kong. The region is allowed limited liberties beyond those permitted in mainland China under a "one country, two systems" arrangement that was made following the UK's handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Since widescale protests against Beijing's encroachment of Hong Kong liberties paralyzed the city in 2014, as thousands of pro-democracy protesters occupied busy areas, mainland officials have become more brazen in asserting their authority there.
The disappearance of the booksellers has unsettled residents of Hong Kong, where Bo may have been detained before being spirited to mainland China.
"There is a lot of guessing about what happened, but people recognize that there are some pretty major taboos that have been broken with this," said Minzer.
On Tuesday, Zeid urged the government in Beijing "to ensure a fair and transparent procedure" in the cases of the five booksellers.
Beijing's repressive campaign has also extended to academia. Yuan Guiren, China's minister of education, issued a directive to professors early last year, instructing them to "by no means allow teaching materials that disseminate Western values in our classrooms." In 2014, Xi similarly demanded that universities "improve the ideological and political work" they carry out.
Since Xi took power, numerous professors at state schools have been fired for allegedly criticizing the government.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford
Reuters contributed to this report.