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Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives to hold a press conference at the BRICS Summit in Xiamen, Fujian province, China September 5, 2017. REUTERS/Fred Dufour/Pool

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By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) - Beijing is waging a campaign of harassment against Chinese activists who seek to testify at the United Nations about repression, while the world body sometimes turns a blind eye or is even complicit, Human Rights Watch said.

In a report released on Tuesday, the group said China restricts travel of activists, or photographs or films them if they do come to the U.N. in Geneva to cooperate with human rights watchdogs scrutinising its record.

"What we found is that China is systematically trying to undermine the U.N.'s ability to defend human rights, certainly in China but also globally as well," Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.

"This comes at a point where domestically China's repression is the worst it has been since the Tiananmen Square democracy movement (in 1989). So there is much to hide and China clearly attaches enormous importance to muting criticism of its increasingly abysmal human rights record."

Asked about the report at a regular briefing on Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang dismissed its accusations as "groundless", adding that China was playing an active role in the United Nations' human rights work.

"We urge the relevant organisation to remove their tinted lenses and objectively and justly view China's human rights development," he said.

The U.N. system offers one of the few remaining channels for Chinese activists to express their views, the New York-based group said.

Its report, “The Costs of International Advocacy: China’s Interference in United Nations Human Rights Mechanisms,” is based on 55 interviews.

"NIP-IT-IN-THE-BUD STRATEGY"

"(Chinese President) Xi Jinping seems to have adopted a 'nip it in the bud' strategy with respect to activism at home, but increasingly abroad. That's one of our messages, China's repression isn't stopping at its borders these days," Roth said.

In China, activists have "decreasing space safe" from intimidation, arbitrary detention, and a legal system controlled by the Communist Party, the report said, decrying a crackdown on activists and lawyers since 2015.Some activists who have attended U.N. reviews of China's record have been punished on their return, it said. Others have their passports confiscated or are arrested before departure.

When Xi addressed the U.N. in Geneva in January, the U.N. barred non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from attending, Human Rights Watch said.

Dolkun Isa, an ethnic Uighur rights activist originally from China, was attending a U.N. event in New York in April when U.N. security guards ejected him without explanation, despite his accreditation, it added.

Jiang Tianyong, a prominent human rights lawyer, disappeared last November, months after meeting in Beijing with U.N. special rapporteur on poverty Philip Alston who has called for his release.

Jiang, after being held incommunicado for six months, was charged with subversion. At his trial last month he confessed, saying that he had been inspired to overthrow China's political system by workshops he had attended overseas.

"It illustrates the lengths to which China will go to ensure that even when it admits a U.N. investigator, the investigator only hears the government's side of the story," Roth said.

"When a rare activist is able to break through the 'cordon sanitaire', they are arrested.

"So the signal is clear - don't you dare present an independent perspective to a U.N. investigator."

(Reporting and writing by Stephanie Nebehay; Additional reporting by Christian Shepherd in Beijing; Editing by John Stonestreet and Clarence Fernandez)

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Reuters