The United States dropped China from its list of the world's worst human rights violators, but added Syria, Uzbekistan and Sudan to its top 10 offenders in an annual report released Tuesday.
Despite removing Beijing from its top blacklist, the State Department's 2007 Human Rights Report said China, which has raised hopes internationally that it would improve human rights by hosting the 2008 Olympics, still had a poor record overall.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the report was aimed at highlighting the struggle for human rights around the world.
"In the long run, we are confident that citizens who sacrifice for their dignity and their rights will prevail, just as the Havels and the Mandelas did before them," Rice told reporters.
"Change may, indeed, change will take time, but change will come."
But human rights groups criticized the move, with Reporters Without Borders saying it was "a bad decision at a bad time" amid global moves to pressure Beijing into improving its record ahead of the August Olympics.
China had been fingered as one of the worst violators in the Department's 2006 and 2005 reports.
This year China was classified among authoritarian countries that are undergoing economic reform and rapid social change, but which "have not undertaken democratic political reform," the report said.
The State Department said in the report that "countries in which power was concentrated in the hands of unaccountable rulers remained the world's most systematic human rights violators."
It listed 10 in that category: North Korea, Myanmar, Iran, Syria, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Eritrea and Sudan.
A State Department spokesman though, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters "there is no statutory significance to this list," meaning it does not legally affect the status of relations with Washington.
But the report stressed that China's "overall human rights record remained poor" in 2007, citing tightened controls on religious freedom against Buddhists in Tibet and in Muslims in northwestern Xinjiang.
"The government also continued to monitor, harass, detain, arrest, and imprison activists, writers, journalists, and defense lawyers and their families, many of whom were seeking to exercise their rights under the law."
Although there had been some progress in the legal system, "efforts to reform or abolish the reeducation-through-labor system remained stalled," it said.
Another State Department official, who asked not to be named, insisted: "We're not pulling punches with China" and denied there was any link with the Olympic Games.
But rights groups criticized the report's findings.
"We're of the view that the human rights situation in China is actually certainly not improving and particularly that there are abuses that are now taking place specifically because China is hosting the Olympics," said Sophie Richardson, from Human Rights Watch.
Reporters Without Borders, agreed in a statement from Washington, saying: "This move is seen as a major setback for human rights organizations, who have been striving especially hard in these last five months before the games to improve the status of human rights in China."
Other authoritarian countries undergoing change listed by the State Department along with China were Venezuela, Nigeria, Thailand, Kenya and Egypt.
Human rights had improved in several countries since 2006, including Mauritania, Ghana, Morocco and Haiti, the report said.
Little or no progress had been made in Nepal, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Iraq, Afghanistan or Russia, while the situation had deteriorated in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the report added.
Sudan's Arab-led government was harshly criticized for its offensive against the ethnic African population in western Darfur, where there were "reports of extrajudicial killings, torture, beatings, and rape by government security forces and their proxy militia in Darfur."
Syria, accused by Washington of allegedly supporting terrorism, was also slammed.
"Syria's human rights record worsened this year, and the regime continued to commit serious abuses such as detaining an increasing number of activists, civil society organizers, and other regime critics," it said.
In Uzbekistan, the report said "security forces routinely tortured, beat, and otherwise mistreated detainees under interrogation to obtain confessions or incriminating information."
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