BEIJING (Reuters) - The European Union (EU) is "extremely troubled" by the human rights situation in China and has called for the immediate release of wrongly detained individuals, it said on Friday.
"During the past year, we have been extremely troubled about the deterioration of the situation with respect to freedom of expression and association," it said in a statement.
The increased "repression" related to freedom of speech and association has seen the arrest, detention and conviction of human rights lawyers, defenders and others, it added
China consistently rejects criticism of its human rights record and says it is a country ruled by law.
Authorities have accused dissident lawyers and legal activists of orchestrating protests outside courts, politicising ordinary legal cases, and conspiring with "foreign forces" to undermine China's ruling Communist Party.
The European Union reiterated calls for a release of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and ethnic Uighur academic Ilham Tohti.
It also expressed concern about lawyers detained in connection with a 2015 crackdown on dissent.
Since then, dozens of people linked to a Beijing law firm have been detained or prosecuted, as President Xi Jinping's administration has tightened control, citing a need to boost national security and stability.
Many of those lawyers and activists have been sentenced for subverting the government, drawing the condemnation of international rights groups and governments.
The European Union singled out the case of Jiang Tianyong, a rights lawyer disbarred in 2009 for his activism, who went missing in November after his wife said he was being tracked by security agents.
The United Nations on Tuesday urged the Chinese government to investigate the whereabouts of Jiang, saying it was worried he may be at risk of torture.
When asked about Jiang on Wednesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said any Chinese individual who broke Chinese law "regardless of who they are or their profession, must be dealt with under Chinese law".
The ministry did not immediately respond to request for comment on the EU statement when contacted after work hours on Friday.
Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Robert Birsel