By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - China has detained a human rights activist who helped stage a sit-in this year outside the Foreign Ministry to press for the public to be allowed to contribute to a national human rights report, her friend said on Monday.
The detention of Cao Shunli could fuel criticism of China's rights policy when it comes up for scrutiny at a U.N. meeting in Geneva on October 22, when groups and governments will be given the chance to press China on issues ranging from the death penalty to the treatment of dissidents.
Cao went missing in mid-September after authorities prevented her from flying to Geneva to attend a human rights training programme, her friend, Liu Xiaofang, told Reuters by telephone.
Beijing police told another of Cao's friend, Feng Shuying, on Monday that Cao has been "criminally detained" since last Saturday, Liu said. Feng could not be reached for comment.
Liu said she believed authorities had detained Cao, whose disappearance has sparked an outcry from human rights groups, because Cao had staged a two-month sit-in with other activists outside the Foreign Ministry, beginning in June.
Hundreds of activists had urged officials to reply to their requests to participate in drafting China's national human rights report ahead of the country's Universal Periodic Review by the United Nations in October.
"I think that action really angered the ministry," Liu said.
Cao, who has been at the forefront of efforts to take part in the process to join the Universal Periodic Review since 2008, is believed to be in a detention centre in Beijing, Liu said.
Beijing police could not be reached for comment.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said he had no knowledge of Cao.
"But China is a country with rule of law and the legal rights of Chinese citizens are protected by the law and the constitution, which at the same time all people must abide by," he said.
Maya Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said by detaining Cao, the government was sending one message: "Independent voices on human rights are not welcome."
"Instead of listening to people's voices and legitimate grievances, the government has unfortunately opted to shoot the messenger," Wang said.
All U.N. members are expected to undergo the United Nations Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review. Begun in 2008, the process will examine each country every four years.
International human rights groups have already laid out their criticisms of China in submissions to the review. The main ones include the detention of dissidents and activists, using sweeping security laws and party-run courts to punish critics.
In 2009, China rejected calls from Western and some Latin American countries to end the death penalty but agreed to suggestions by Cuba that it ensure firm action against "self-styled human rights defenders working against the Chinese state and people". (Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard)