(Reuters) - The U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay, in a clear reference to campaigners such as China's Nobel winner Liu Xiaobo, called Wednesday for the release of all prisoners jailed for promoting democracy.
Pillay, a former South African High Court judge, issued her appeal in a statement for U.N. Human Rights Day to be marked in Geneva and New York Friday at the same time as Liu will be honored in absentia with the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.
Pillay has been criticized over the past days for "kow-towing" to Beijing by refusing to go to the ceremony, but her spokesman said Wednesday she had not been invited.
"I call on governments to acknowledge that criticism is not a crime and to release all those people who have been detained for peacefully exercising their fundamental rights to defend democratic principles and human rights," she said.
Although she referred to dissenting journalists and teachers and to the families of imprisoned dissidents being harassed -- which could apply to Liu and many others -- she did not mention him by name in the two-page statement.
Issued by her office in Geneva, it said advances across the world in human rights were due to "the enormous efforts of hundreds of thousands of largely unsung heroes" and the commitment and courage of human rights defenders.
Pillay has been outspoken on rights violations in countries like Iran and Sri Lanka and has criticized Russia, China and the United States in the past. She rebuked Beijing openly last December when Liu was given his 11-year prison sentence.
Over the past few days, Chinese dissidents in the West and some non-governmental rights groups often critical of the U.N. have asserted that she -- like a number of governments -- had given in to Chinese pressure by declining to go to Oslo.
But spokesman Rupert Colville told Reuters that was based on false information: "She could not have refused because she has never had an invitation from the prize committee."
Colville said she would be making a wide-ranging speech expanding on Wednesday's statement at the rights day ceremonies in Geneva Friday, and would be ready to answer questions on Liu at a news conference after, he added.
Even before the denial, some Western diplomats expressed sympathy for Pillay, whose often feisty pronouncements have angered members of the developing country bloc, including China, which holds sway in the U.N. Human Rights Council.
"We may criticize some of what she has done, but by and large she has proven her credentials as a champion of human rights in what is a very difficult job," said one European envoy who asked not to be named.
(Editing by Alison Williams)