Games countdown marred by China's human rights row

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The Independent Online

With just over a year to go until the Beijing 2008 Olympics, human rights groups have criticised a crackdown on Chinese human rights activists and journalists as well as the continued use of laojiao or "re-education through labour" and other forms of detention without trial.

Activists have also attacked the way in which people are being forced out of their homes in traditional hutong laneways to make way for Olympic developments, often without receiving adequate compensation. And they say Beijing has failed to meet its promises on ensuring media freedom.

The one-year countdown starts tomorrow but the chorus of disapproval from human rights groups shows the huge public relations challenge facing the organisers in the coming 12 months.

Amnesty International said in a report yesterday that while positive steps have been made in some limited areas, namely reform of the death penalty system and greater reporting freedom for foreign journalists in China, it remained concerned they were overshadowed by other negative developments.

"The image of the Olympics continues to be tarnished by ongoing reports of the 'house arrest', torture or unfair trial of Chinese activists and the extension of systems for detention without trial in Beijing as part of the city's 'clean-up' ahead of August 2008," Amnesty said.

Beijing buys much of Sudan's oil and sells it arms - so activists are using the Olympics to get China to put pressure on Khartoum over the fighting in Darfur.

The actress Mia Farrow has said the director Steven Spielberg, who is co-directing filming of the ceremonies with Chinese director Zhang Yimou, risks earning comparisons with Nazi film-maker Leni Riefenstahl.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) chief Jacques Rogge repeated his oft-cited mantra that the games would be a "significant force for good", but could hardly be expected to resolve all the issues facing the country. And he reiterated the IOC was a sports organisation first and foremost. "We are not a government, we are not the representative of all the NGOs of the world."

"We believe the Games are going to move ahead the agenda of the social and human rights as far as possible, the Games are going to be a force for good. But the Games are not a panacea," Mr Rogge said.

He said it was "absolutely legitimate" for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and human rights groups to bring attention to their causes both now and when the games take place.

Human Rights Watch said the Chinese government was violating commitments on media freedom it made to the IOC by continuing to harass, intimidate and detain foreign journalists and their local colleagues.

"The Chinese government's attempts to intimidate and detain foreign journalists for simply doing their jobs shows contempt for Olympic ideas of fair play," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The ongoing harassment and detention of journalists makes Beijing's Olympic pledge on media freedoms seem more like a public relations ploy than a sincere policy initiative."

Last week, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China released a survey that said the government still harassed reporters and did not respect its promise for total media freedom.

Wearing T-shirts showing the Olympic rings turned into handcuffs, four activists from the media freedom group Reporters Without Borders held an unauthorised news conference outside the Beijing organisers headquarters in Beijing.

"You cannot hold such a big sports event as the Olympic Games in the shadow of Chinese prisons," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said. "The authorities have kidnapped these games. The official slogan, 'One world, one dream,' sounds more and more hollow. Beijing has not kept its promises to improve the human rights situation and yet continues cynically to refer to the Olympic spirit," said Mr Ménard.

There was a classic example of censorship yesterday when a CNN broadcast, which referred to the issue of media freedom in China, was blocked by censors.

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