updated 2/25/2009 3:40:08 PM ET 2009-02-25T20:40:08

The United States on Wednesday scolded China for a litany of human-rights abuses last year even though Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested during her recent Beijing visit that the issue would take a back seat to broader concerns like the global financial crisis.

In a report on the state of human rights around the world, the State Department singled out China for numerous violations while noting a general deterioration in conditions in other countries in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and eastern Europe.

The report noted some improvements in Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries where American troops are fighting insurgencies. The document also made clear that the Obama administration welcomes comments about U.S. human rights practices, an oblique reference to international criticism of America's own treatment of prisoners taken in those conflicts.

'Cultural and religious repression'
In its section on China, the State Department accused China of stepping up "severe cultural and religious repression" of minorities in Tibet and elsewhere as well as increasing its detention and harassment of dissidents.

"The government of China's human rights record remained poor and worsened in some areas," the State Department said. The report noted that Chinese authorities continued to limit citizens' right to privacy, freedom of speech, assembly, movement and association. It said authorities also committed extrajudicial killings and torture, coerced confessions from prisoners and used forced labor.

The report said the abuses peaked around high-profile events like last year's Olympic Games in Beijing and unrest in Tibet and that toward the end of last year the government began harassing activists who signed a petition calling for respect of human rights.

The report covers 2008 and was largely drafted during President George W. Bush's administration, but Clinton signed off on the findings.

Clinton accused of 'pandering'
Clinton was criticized by human-rights groups for saying on a trip to Asia last week that while the Obama administration is deeply concerned about human rights in China the matter could not be allowed to interfere with attempts to cooperate with Beijing on the worldwide economic meltdown and fighting global climate change.

Clinton said a continuing debate over human rights with the Chinese government was not necessarily productive, drawing fire from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as well as several Republicans in Congress.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., accused Clinton of "a shocking display of pandering" to China and of having "dismissed, devalued and debased human rights" in the country.

Clinton declined to answer questions from reporters when she presented the report. But she stressed that the Obama administration would work with both government and private organizations to improve human rights conditions throughout the world.

"We must rely on more than one approach as we strive to overcome tyranny and subjugation that weakens the human spirit, limits human possibility and undermines human progress," she said.

Abuses in Myanmar
During her trip, Clinton also questioned whether the current U.S. policy on military-ruled Myanmar, which relies heavily on sanctions, was effective in attempting to restore democracy.

Wednesday's report said Myanmar's military regime committed "severe human rights abuses" and "brutally suppressed dissent" through a campaign of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and torture.

In its section on the U.S. human rights record, the State Department said the Obama administration would "hear and reply forthrightly to concerns about our own practices."

The report noted that President Barack Obama has pledged to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by the end of the year and has barred harsh interrogation techniques of prisoners. Critics said some of the interrogation methods used during the Bush administration constitute torture.

In Afghanistan, where many Guantanamo inmates were captured, the report said rights conditions had continued to improve since the 2001 fall of the Taliban. But the report noted that the country's record "remained poor" because of a weak central government and the ongoing insurgency.

In Iraq, the report said a substantial improvement in security and easing of sectarian tensions had resulted in progress. But "continuing insurgent and extremist violence against civilians undermined the government's ability to uphold the rule of law, resulting in widespread and severe human rights abuses," the report noted.

Despite a return to civilian democratic rule in Pakistan in 2008, the report said human rights conditions there are still "poor."

The report also took Russia to task for failing to protect the rights of their citizens, warning that civil liberties in Russia "continued to be under siege."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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