As U.S. officials head to China for a dialogue on human rights, a Chinese rights group has warned that 17 people—including artist Ai Weiwei—who are being held incommunicado in a recent crackdown on dissent are at risk of being tortured.
"They are at high risk of torture or other mistreatment while held illegally incommunicado," the China Human Right Defenders (CHRD) group said in a statement on its website.
Top of the list was prominent artist and social critic Ai, whose family has had no official word on his whereabouts after he was detained at a Beijing airport on April 3.
Beijing has brushed off overseas calls for Ai's release as interference in China's internal affairs, saying only that the artist is under investigation for "economic crimes."
"We still don't know what is going on," said Ai's sister Gao Ge. She said Ai's wife had contacted China's state security police requesting a meeting with her husband.
"They came over to visit us the same day," Gao said, adding that the family had taken the response as confirmation that Ai was being held by them. "But according to what they said, [the visit] won't happen."
Gao said the tacit confirmation that Ai was being held and the continuing lack of formal documentation had made the family even more worried.
"My mother is even more worried that her son has been caught up in such an evil scheme," Gao said. "She is very anxious, and she has trouble sleeping at night."
CHRD said police had returned to Ai’s Beijing studio at the weekend with a search warrant and searched the building for six hours, confiscating all computers and hard drives on the premises.
"A total of eight assistants, along with Ai’s wife Lu Qing, were taken in for interrogations by police. They were all later released," it said.
Also named on the list of individuals at risk of torture and mistreatment were Ai's accountant Hu Mingfen, his co-designer Liu Zhenggang, driver Zhang Jinsong and assistant, journalist Wen Tao.
Beijing-based writers and activists Ceng Renguang and Hu Di are also missing, together with Chongqing-based graduate student Lan Ruoyu, Shanghai-based rights lawyer Li Tiantian, and netizen Zhang Haibo, who was detained after he tried to attend a "Jasmine" protest in the city.
Guangdong rights lawyer Liu Shihui and Liu Zhengqing were also named, along with Beijing-based lawyer Teng Biao and fellow activists Zhang Yongpan, Liu Dejun, and Zhou Li.
Guangzhou-based editor and activist Yuan Xinting had also "disappeared" in early March, CHRD said.
A U.S. delegation led by Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner will begin human rights talks in Beijing on Wedesday, amid a nationwide crackdown in which dozens have been detained, sent to labor camp, or sentenced to jail terms for subversion.
Meanwhile, author Salman Rushdie led a protest in New York last week over an overseas travel ban on Sichuan-based author Liao Yiwu.
Liao was prevented by police from leaving China to attend the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, which opened on Monday in New York, his wife confirmed.
"The police talked to him about it and told him that he couldn't leave China," Liao's wife said on Monday. "It was only a literary event, nothing more, but the police said it was sensitive, and that it wasn't the right time."
"There was nothing we could do about it. We're getting kind of used to it, because Liao has been prevented from going overseas at least 10 times now," she said. "It's very wearisome."
The latest crackdown on dissent in China began following anonymous online calls for a "Jasmine" revolution, inspired by recent uprisings in the Middle East.
The State Department said last week that its discussions with China on human rights would focus on "human rights developments, including the recent negative trend of forced disappearances, extralegal detentions, and arrests and convictions."
Beijing responded to the annual State Department report on its human rights situation with its own appraisal of the human rights situation in the United States.
Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.