BEIJING (Reuters) - China plans to invite the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture to visit for the first time "quite soon", in a sign it was serious about stamping out the problem, European Union representatives said on Friday.
It was not immediately clear if the Rapporteur, who monitors progress in abolishing torture worldwide, would be allowed the same access to prisons he is accorded in other countries that have ratified a U.N. anti-torture convention.
"Apparently, contacts have been taken and plans are on the way for a visit quite soon by the Rapporteur on Torture. They have agreed in principle," said Michael Goblet D'Alviella, an EU representative in China for a regular human rights dialogue.
He did not give details of when or under what conditions the torture envoy would visit China.
The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, British law professor Sir Nigel Rodley, has been seeking to visit China for more than two years, but Beijing had agreed only to a "friendly" visit, diplomats said.
"This is an encouraging sign," one Western diplomat said. "It's been in the pipeline for a while."
"The question is on what terms he will visit -- would he have access to prisons? China wanted something more limited."
Rights groups have said torture and ill-treatment are common in China, despite being outlawed, and are rooted in endemic legal and institutional deficiencies.
The EU group, which met with representatives from the Chinese Foreign Ministry for the rights dialogue, said China had given other signs it was serious about ending torture.
"We heard, with great satisfaction, from the mouth of a judge with very high-level responsibility a very encouraging personal rejection of the principle of torture," Goblet D'Alviella said.
He said an experiment in China's northeastern province of Liaoning giving suspects the right to silence was also positive because the widespread notion that suspects or criminals were required to give confessions had been a cause of torture.
Goblet D'Alviella said torture would also be the subject of a seminar in December in Belgium that was part of a series the EU hold with China as part of its human rights dialogue, which began in 1997.
OTHER TOPICS DELICATE
During the rights dialogue the EU group also raised concerns about Beijing's respect of minority cultures and religions, particularly in Tibet and Xinjiang, and the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, but saw no change in the Chinese stance on any of the issues.
China has called for international support for its campaign against Muslim ethnic Uighur militants struggling for an independent state in the northwestern region of Xinjiang as part of the global war on terrorism.
"The current context of the post September 11 events makes a discussion in this respect quite delicate and we basically insisted for the respect of the religious and cultural rights of the people in that region," Goblet D'Alviella said.
Human rights groups have accused Beijing of using the war on terror to persecute all Uighur separatists and the EU asked China to distinguish clearly between violent and non-violent groups.
The EU representatives said China was also considering inviting the U.N. Special Rapporteurs for education and religious intolerance, but gave no timeline.