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Asian nations find human rights hypocrisy in prison abuse scandal

BEIJING—The scandal over U.S. abuse of prisoners in Iraq has given China a chance to disparage Washington's human rights record, and it's done so with unreserved gusto.

But even as Beijing takes swipes at Washington, America's broad troubles in Iraq are rippling across the region, unsettling a five-decade U.S. military alliance with South Korea, worrying trade partners in Southeast Asia and hardening attitudes among Muslims around the Far East and South Asia.

Seoul officials bemoaned the Pentagon's decision this week to redeploy about 3,600 U.S. troops from South Korea to Iraq, reducing troop presence on the Korean Peninsula by about a tenth.

South Korean observers fretted that the U.S. campaign in Iraq may become the catalyst for definitive changes to the U.S.-Korean military alliance. The pending troop relocation "puts many Koreans on edge," the semi-official Yonhap news service said Wednesday, two days after the Pentagon confirmed the redeployment.

Australia and Japan have deployed troops to Iraq. Australian Prime Minister John Howard pledged in a speech Wednesday night to keep his country's 300 soldiers there, saying a pullout would send the wrong signal to armed extremists.

"I am more determined than ever that Australia should stay the distance and finish the tasks for which we have taken responsibility," Howard said.

For the past 10 days, China's state-controlled news media have given extensive play to photographs of military abuse at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison. Commentary intensified this week after the State Department ended an awkward 12-day delay and released a report on U.S. efforts to promote human rights, which criticized 101 nations.

Once again this year, the U.S. human rights report faulted China for its poor record and said Beijing routinely oppresses health activists, labor protesters, defense lawyers, journalists and religious figures.

China's government-run news agency, Xinhua, declared that the "torture-gate" scandal has "severely undermined the image of the United States" and exposed its "double standard" in dealing with democracy and human rights.

In its main story Wednesday, the news agency cited a Chinese official human-rights spokesman, Lin Bocheng, as declaring, "The United States has made itself a scoundrel as its forces ruthlessly ravaged prisoners' dignity and trampled their basic human rights in Iraq."

Chinese Internet censors have allowed a flood of messages in chat rooms, apparently seeking to stoke nationalist sentiment. Some messages, but far from all, have been virulently anti-American in tone.

On the Web site, one surfer commented on the recent beheading of Nicholas Berg, an American hostage killed by extremists in Iraq: "If I were an Iraqi, I would have killed more Americans in a more cruel way."

Ralph A. Cossa, the president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Pacific Forum, based in Honolulu, said the prison-abuse scandal has been "a gift to the Chinese at a time when we issue our annual `bash China' human rights report.

"Everybody who has taken a hit in our human rights reports are now having a field day with our `holier-than-thou' attitude."

North Korea, which is accused of abysmal treatment of its citizens, also piled on, declaring last weekend that U.S. prison guards "committed shuddering atrocities without hesitation." Pyongyang called the United States an "empire of evil," an echo of President Bush's description of North Korea as being part of an "axis of evil."

A year ago, the mood in East Asia was distinctly different. Many analysts and politicians quietly fretted that a U.S. military romp in Iraq might spur the Pentagon to dust off plans to topple the North Korean regime.

"Some Asians are secretly pleased with the way things are going in Iraq," Cossa said. "There's been a sigh of relief that we've been bogged down and the likelihood of us undertaking more pre-emptive wars has gone down."

Still, in Southeast Asia, which relies heavily on U.S. trade, the prison scandal, along with a steady stream of bombings and assassinations in Iraq, has brought a sense that the war in Iraq might yet bear seeds of peril for the region.

"There is a growing doubt that Americans know what they are doing in Iraq," Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, wrote in a column headlined, "Will Asians Endure Iraq?" in Tuesday's Straits Times newspaper.

Many Muslims in East Asia are simmering over events in Iraq.

"I always stand on the side of Muslims," said Sun Haiyan, a 30-year-old restaurant worker, from inside the Niu Jie Mosque in Beijing before turning heel and refusing further questions.

"Let's pray that Mr. Bush won't be re-elected," said Nu'er Maxian, 75, a Muslim leaving prayers at Beijing's oldest mosque, which was built in A.D. 996.


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.