Reuters International

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department's annual human rights report on Wednesday criticized Beijing's 'severe' crackdown against Chinese lawyers and law firms handling cases that Beijing considers politically sensitive.

The report, which describes human rights practices of governments in 199 countries, said repression and coercion in China against organizations and individuals involved in civil and political rights advocacy had increased.

"The crackdown on the legal community was particularly severe, as individual lawyers and law firms that handled cases the government deemed 'sensitive' were targeted for harassment and detention," the report said.

Hundreds of lawyers and law associates were interrogated, investigated, and in many cases detained in secret locations for months without charges or access to attorneys or family members, the report added.

It said the authorities had resorted to "extralegal measures" such as enforced disappearances and strict house arrests to prevent criticism of the government.

Unveiling the report at a news conference, Kerry said the worst human rights abuses in 2015 occurred in the Middle East, fuelled by wars in Iraq and Syria that had caused immense suffering.

He cited south Asian states, as well as Egypt and Cuba, as countries that the United States differed with over human rights.

Despite establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba an a historic visit to Havana by U.S. President Barack Obama, the report criticized the Castro government for its continued practise of arbitrary, short-term detentions of opposition members.

"There is no question in my mind that most Cubans are far more interested in plugging into the world economy than in recycling arguments left over from the Cold War," Kerry said.

"The only question is how long it will take for the officials in Havana to catch up with the population," he added.

The report cited Turkey, Malaysia and Tajikistan for using broad counter terrorism or national security laws to restrict political dissent and stifle freedom of expression.

The United States has stepped up its criticism of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan treatment of the press and urged his government not to pursue a strategy of repression and shutting down democratic debate in the country.

The report said Turkey, which is a key U.S. security ally, had used anti-terror laws to stifle political discourse and investigative journalism, and pursued "politically-motivated investigations and court verdicts that were not consistent with the law or with rules in similar cases."

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Andrew Hay)

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