U.S. urges release of rights lawyer in growing crackdown

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Wednesday called on China to release human rights lawyer Zhang Kai and said it was concerned by reports that the son of another detained rights lawyer had been put under house arrest. In releasing the State Department's annual International Religious Freedom Report, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Zhang, a Chinese Christian, was detained shortly before a meeting in August with David Saperstein, the U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom, who was visiting China. Kerry said Zhang's whereabouts were unknown. Speaking at the same event, Saperstein described Zhang's detention as part of a "growing crackdown on human rights lawyers in China, including those seeking to work within China's legal system to enhance religious freedom." "We have continued to ask questions. We will continue on this and we hope that we will get answers," he added. Saperstein said that while there were widespread government abuses and restrictions by the Chinese government, there were also encouraging signs. "During my visit in August, I found that despite widespread continuing government abuses and restrictions, many place of worship were nonetheless full and flourishing," he said. "In areas of the country where the government's hand was lighter, faith-based social service and welfare agencies operate homeless shelters, orphanages, soup kitchens, and made highly positive contributions to the well-being of their society," Saperstein said, adding that the Chinese authorities could use this as a model of what works. He added, however, that "far more often, restrictive policies still stifle religious life." Separately, the State Department said it was concerned with reports that Bao Zhuoxuan, the under-age son of detained rights lawyer Wang Yu and her detained husband Bao Longjun, was put under house arrest in Inner Mongolia, China. "We urge China to uphold its international human rights commitments and protect the health and safety of this minor child," spokesman John Kirby said in a statement. He said China should allow Bao to leave the country and to study overseas as his family wanted. "We call on China to remove restrictions on Bao Zhuoxuan’s freedom of movement, and again urge China to release Wang Yu and Bao Longjun without condition," Kirby added. (Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by David Brunnstrom and Alan Crosby)