(Adds Chinese government comment)
By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA, March 18 (Reuters) - The United States and European Union (EU) accused China on Tuesday of using arrests and harassment to silence human rights activists, also voicing consternation at the death in custody of a prominent dissident.
During the debate at the U.N. Human Rights Council, China's delegation responded that Cao Shunli had died in hospital last week of tuberculosis and that the Chinese people enjoyed the right to freedom of expression.
It also tried unsuccessfully to stop a speech by Ti-Anna Wang, daughter of Wang Bingzhang, a physician serving a life sentence for his role in overseas Chinese democracy movements.
Criticism of China is rare at the Geneva forum. Western states and activists took advantage of a catch-all agenda item to complain of violations by China, which is among its 47 member states this year.
"China has increased arrests, forced disappearances, and extralegal detentions of those who peacefully challenge official policies and actions, including Xu Zhiyong and Ilham Tohti," said Peter Mulrean, U.S. charge d'affaires.
The Chinese government had increased Internet controls, media censorship, and continued to limit religious freedom, particularly in Tibetan and Uighur areas, he said.
"We note with profound sadness the recent death of Cao Shunli, an activist who urged independent civil society participation in China's Universal Periodic Review process and was detained until recently," Mulrean said.
China's foreign ministry denied on Monday that Cao Shunli died because she was refused medical treatment while in detention.
Cao staged a two-month sit-in along with other activists outside the Foreign Ministry starting in June to press for the public to contribute to a national human rights report.
She went missing in mid-September after authorities stopped her from flying to Geneva for a human rights training programme ahead of an examination of China's record known as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). She was arrested in October on suspicion of "picking quarrels and provoking troubles".
Greece, speaking on behalf of the EU, said it was deeply shocked by Cao's death after her detention for "supporting the participation of independent civil society" in the U.N. review.
"We pay tribute to Ms. Cao Shunli and remind that her case is just one in a multitude of trials, convictions, detentions and house arrests of human rights defenders in China, and harassment of their relatives," said Greece's ambassador Alexandros Alexandris.
Nobel peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo and Xu Zhiyong, members of the New Citizens Movement, are detained for peacefully advocating social justice, while Ilham Tohti is in jail for peacefully promoting the human rights of minorities, he said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei rejected the criticism on Wednesday.
"At the U.N. Human Rights Council, some countries ignored the great progress made by China on human rights, and wilfully criticised. This is the politicisation of human rights and a double standard. China is resolutely opposed to it," he told reporters. (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Ruth Pitchford and Michael Perry)