Beijing/Geneva, March 17 (Reuters): China freed one of its highest-profile political prisoners today and Washington opted not to seek a UN rebuke of Beijing's rights record, days before US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice visits China.
The apparent tit-for-tat concessions, made public almost simultaneously, come at a time when Sino-US ties are dogged by tensions over Taiwan and the two capitals are wrangling over how to jumpstart stalled North Korean nuclear talks.
Rebiya Kadeer, an ethnic Uighur businesswoman from the far western Chinese region of Xinjiang, was released on medical parole today and boarded a flight to the US for treatment, the Dui Hua foundation said in a statement.
Kadeer, 58, was detained in August 1999 and sentenced in March 2000 to eight years in prison for 'illegally providing state intelligence abroad' after she sent newspaper clippings to her husband in America.
Her case had topped a list of prisoners the US state department had been pushing Beijing to release.
'As we engage with China, it is good to see some visible signs of progress. (But) we have a whole lot of stuff to talk to them about,' said a senior state department official, who asked not to be named. Beijing commonly frees political prisoners to give itself bargaining power before major visits or as a gesture of goodwill to negotiating partners.
'It's of course very much tied to secretary Rice's visit. The Chinese wanted to do this before she arrived,' said John Kamm, Dui Hua's executive director, who welcomed her release.
Citing progress in China, the US said in Geneva today it would not ask the UN Commission on Human Rights to put through a motion critical of Beijing.
'There have been improvements. We have seen progress in some of the things that we have been working on,' a US spokeswoman in Geneva said without giving details.
While welcoming Kadeer's release, however, the US also urged clemency for other prisoners. 'We also call on the Chinese government to release all others who are, in our view, imprisoned unjustly for the peaceful expression of their political and religious views,' a Beijing embassy spokeswoman said.
US officials have been urging freedom for scholar Yang Jianli, jailed for entering China illegally in 2002 and accused of spying, and New York Times researcher Zhao Yan, detained six months ago on charges of giving state secrets to foreigners.
Kadeer's women's rights work in mainly Muslim Xinjiang earned her a seat on the Chinese parliament's top advisory body. Then in 1997 she was placed under surveillance and her passport seized.
Then in 1999 the former director of a Xinjiang trading firm was detained while on her way to meet a group of US congressional staff. Last March, China cut a year off her term just days before a parliament session wrote protection of human rights into the constitution.
Many Uighurs, traditional Turkic-speaking people of Xinjiang, seek greater autonomy for the region, and some even want independence. Beijing has waged a relentless campaign against what it calls violent separatist activities in the desert region.
The embassy spokeswoman declined to say if the US decision on the Geneva rights commission was directly linked to Kadeer's release, but listed several other factors prompting the move, including China agreeing to visits this year by the UN special rapporteur on torture and the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The torture investigator was due in China from May 23 to June 4, she said, and the rights commissioner from August 29 to September 2.