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US calls on China to release activists investigating Ivanka Trump brand

The Guardian logo The Guardian 6/06/2017 Benjamin Haas in Hong Kong
Hua Haifeng is seen during a visit to a park in Chengde in central China’s Hubei province. © AP Hua Haifeng is seen during a visit to a park in Chengde in central China’s Hubei province.

The US state department has called on China to release three labour activists who were investigating abuses at a factory that makes products for Ivanka Trump’s clothing label, one week after the men disappeared into police custody.

The three activists were preparing to issue a report accusing factories that make shoes for the daughter of US president Donald Trump of a host of violations including paying below China’s legal minimum wage, managers verbally abusing workers and “violations of women’s rights”, according to their NGO China Labor Watch.

But one of the activists, Hua Haifeng, was detained by police on suspicion of “illegal use of monitoring equipment” and two others, Li Zhao and Su Heng, have gone missing and are presumed to be in police custody.

The case has highlighted the pitfalls of the US first family and their many business interests around the world, creating a tangled web of potential conflicts of interest. Chinese activists have accused Trump of being soft on human rights, as he forged closer ties with Chinese president Xi Jinping and a host of authoritarian leaders around the world.

“We urge China to release them immediately and otherwise afford them the judicial and fair trial protections to which they are entitled,” said Alicia Edwards, a state department spokesperson. Labour activists are crucial for helping US companies understand factory conditions and ensuring manufactures abide by Chinese law, she added.

But she would not say if US officials had formally raised the activists’ case with China. Ivanka Trump’s brand has declined to comment on the case.

Despite US calls, it appears Hua may already have been denied due process. His lawyer, Wen Yu, was prevented from seeing Hua at the detention center this week.

Police told Wen that Hua “had met with an accident in his cell” and that he would be unable to see his client until after Hua was arraigned on criminal charges, according to US-funded Radio Free Asia.

“They were just stripping him of his right to see a lawyer,” Wen said, adding that he did not believe the police account. Police in Ganzhou, where Hua is being held, did not answer multiple calls seeking comment.

New York-based China Labor Watch has conducted undercover investigations for over 17 years, but this is the first time any of their activists have been detained. The NGO has published exposés on several factories that make products for foreign brands, including Apple and Samsung.

With additional reporting by Wang Zhen.

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