BEIJING -- Despite the release of some prominent dissidents from Chinese jails last year, repression here worsened with almost 250 documented cases of new political arrests or trials, a major new report on Chinese political prisoners says.
The report -- released yesterday by Asia Watch, the human rights group -- contains information on about 1,700 persons known or believed to be imprisoned in China for their political, ethnic or religious views and activities.
Asia Watch says it represents "the most complete available accounting of political and religious imprisonment in China today."
The list contains more names of prisoners than those submitted to China in recent years by U.S. diplomats seeking an accounting of political prisoners here.
The Asia Watch report comes out as Congress is about to open hearings on whether China has made enough progress on human rights to warrant annual renewal of its favorable trade status with the United States this June. A recent U.S. report found China's progress insufficient.
The Chinese Communist Party newspaper, People's Daily, last week called that U.S. report an unprovoked "accusation and attack" on a different society. "This will accomplish the exact opposite of what they hope," the state organ vowed.
The Asia Watch report also comes as high-ranking State Department officials are due here by the end of this month for a round of talks with China on the human-rights issue. Breakthroughs are not expected from this round.
In issuing the report, Asia Watch called on China to release from prison all nonviolent political, religious and ethnic dissidents -- a U.S. demand as well.
Given China's slim legal safe guards, the group also wants China to make public the evidence against dissidents sentenced to jail for violent or criminal acts.
The group's report says:
* Last year was the worst year for political arrests and trials since the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Of about 250 documented new political arrests or trials, almost 80 percent were in Tibet, where the Chinese crackdown on independence activists intensified last year.
* The true number of dissidents detained in China and Tibet is not known, but "is surely far higher" than 3,317, the number of jailed "counter-revolutionaries" acknowledged by China in September.
* China last year released 37 dissidents from jail. But it has been "engaging in a kind of hostage politik, whereby prisoners are used as bargaining chips to be released at key moments for maximum political effect," the report says, adding that Western governments have mistakenly viewed these releases as evidence of improvement here.