updated 1/27/2004 6:59:41 PM ET 2004-01-27T23:59:41

Amnesty International called Wednesday for the release of 54 people jailed in China for expressing opinions on the Internet, citing a “dramatic rise” in the number detained for anything from political speech to spreading news about SARS.

In a report released Wednesday, the London-based group said the 54 cases it had documented represented a significant increase from the 33 people listed in its November 2002 report.

Amnesty said the 54 cases were likely just “a fraction” of the actual number of people detained for opinions expressed online.

“China is said to have in place the most extensive censorship of the Internet of any country in the world,” Amnesty said. Driving China crazy

The organization said the prisoners included people who signed online petitions for government reform, published non-official news about SARS, communicated with dissident groups overseas, or called for a review of Beijing’s bloody 1989 crackdown on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. Detainees also include followers of the banned spiritual group Falun Gong, it said.

China’s Foreign Ministry could not immediately be reached for comment early Wednesday. In the past, it has denounced Amnesty’s claims as biased and baseless.

Amnesty said the number of people detained for sharing information about severe acute respiratory syndrome was especially hard to determine.

What we know about the diseaseThe Chinese government was criticized for keeping last year’s SARS outbreak under wraps in its initial weeks, and many in China resorted to sharing rumors about the disease by e-mail, online bulletin boards and mobile-phone text messages.

While China eventually allowed more reporting on SARS, Amnesty renewed its call for Beijing to ensure the media can report freely on the disease in the event of another large outbreak.

As Internet use surges in China, so does the government’s efforts to control it, Amnesty said. China outlaws any challenges to Communist Party rule, and even people who supply vaguely defined “state secrets” to groups overseas can face the death penalty.

The government tries to control all online communication in China by blocking access to sites that discuss sensitive issues. Online information providers are held responsible for postings on their sites.

Amnesty said the 54 detainees — all of them “prisoners of conscience” — received sentences of between two years and 12 years.

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