VISITING foreign activists yesterday claimed a small victory for human rights in China even as the communist judiciary continues to methodically sentence pro-democracy protesters to jail in orchestrated trials. Police briefly detained an ad hoc human rights group before ordering it to leave China and halt its efforts to promote open, fair trials for the hundreds of activists jailed after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989.
``What happened has only helped us,'' says Simon Jones, a member of a group that calls itself the International Delegation Concerned with Human Rights in China.
``We couldn't have hoped for anything better - I think the delegation has achieved what it set out to do,'' says Mr. Jones, a British citizen. Police told the seven-member group on Jan. 21 that it had violated its tourist status. After three hours in custody the group left China.
Beyond gaining unusual access to government officials, the human rights group was unable to obtain any new information about the demonstrators who were jailed after the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 3-4, 1989.
And in recent weeks, Beijing has brought at least 18 activists before the court in trials whose outcomes have been clearly pre-ordained. On Jan. 5, the court sentenced nine people, including four students, to jail terms ranging from two-to-four years.
Nevertheless, the activists declared their trip a success. The group focused attention on the plight of jailed dissidents and so opposed efforts by Beijing to quietly sentence dissidents as the world concentrates on the Gulf War, says Norman Quan, a group member.
The expulsion of the group, however, underscores Beijing's continued intolerance toward even mild criticism of its rights record. United States diplomats recently expressed hope that a new willingness was emerging in Beijing to listen to foreign criticisms about its rights record.
In high-level talks last month with the US, several of China's internal security officials for the first time did not bridle as a US envoy called for respect of basic liberties. The envoy, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Schifter, said his meetings could signal new tolerance by Beijing toward foreign criticism.
Apparently Beijing still rejects censure from private citizens, including those with foreign diplomatic protection. Immigration officials on Saturday barred a Chinese man from entering the country after learning he intended to lobby for jailed protesters.
Prior to their detention, the members of the human rights group were tailed by plainclothes police but faced no other form of harassment. Officials were polite but uncooperative, Mr. Quan says.
Just how effective the group was, remains unclear. Police and court officials declined to meet with anyone but Quan, a permanent US resident and the only group member who holds a Chinese passport. Moreover, officials refused to reveal basic details about several leading dissidents, including jailed newspaper editor Wang Juntao and economist Chen Ziming.
Beijing claims Mr. Wang and Mr. Chen masterminded the nationwide ground swell of protests in 1989. The two have been charged with trying to overthrow the government and are expected to go before the Beijing Intermediate People's Court, Chinese sources say.
Beijing in recent weeks has brought more than 24 activists before the court in pre-determined trials. Prosecutors and judges have been briefed on what to say in court and defense lawyers have been told what to advise their clients and to submit their trial statements to the court in advance, Chinese sources say.
The Communist Party leadership has ordered the courts to treat most students leniently, yet has asked that more severe sentences be given to older, recalcitrant activists, Chinese sources say. The court is closed to foreign and domestic reporters and in some cases relatives of dissidents have not been informed of the proceedings.
In Beijing at least 65 leading activists are either in jail, awaiting arrest and sentencing, or serving prison terms.
The sole shred of information gained by Quan's group came from Xu Jingfeng, director of foreign affairs at the Ministry of Justice. Mr. Xu told the group that despite persistent reports to the contrary, dissident Wei Jingsheng is in good physical and mental health. Mr. Wei was arrested in 1979 for writing several articles espousing political freedom during China's Democracy Wall movement in 1978. He is serving a 15-year jail term.
The stern response by the police - a US cameraman was roughed up while filming the detention of the group - showed the immense obstacles to basic liberties in China, the group says.
``The political machine that ordered the massacre and the subsequent injustice is still in place,'' says Raymond Chan a member of the group from Vancouver, Canada.
``There are still many people being treated very unfairly who are bearing the heaviest burden of the government's oppression - we mustn't forget them,'' says Mr. Chan.