A senior Chinese security official yesterday banned anti-Chinese protests within the site of the international women's forum near Peking, and said demonstrations on other issues may take place only in a school playground within the forum compound.
The warning came just as Amnesty International marked its first official visit to China by describing as "simply unbelievable" the execution of 16 convicted prisoners in the run-up to the forum and the UN World Conference on Women.
The row over Peking's restrictions on freedom of expression during the NonGovernmental Organisation (NGO) Forum overshadowed the official opening ceremony today. Yesterday's comments by Tian Qiyu, deputy minister for public security, and head of security for both the forum and the official conference, conflicted with Peking's agreement with the United Nations. This specified that the laws of the host country would prevail only outside the agreed sites.
Mr Tian said that within the 100-acre NGO Forum site, public demonstrations would be restricted to a school yard marked with a sign: "Parade area." Even there, the protests "should not infringe on the sovereignty of the host country and should not slander or attack leaders of the host country".
The UN rules do not permit China to specify a place within the forum site for demonstrations. The NGO Forum Convener, Supatra Masdit, said: "The laws of the host country prevail only outside the site of the forum."
China's decision in April to locate the forum in Huairou, more than 30 miles from Peking, was prompted by a desire to isolate about 25,000 activists expected to attend.
The NGO Forum runs from today until 8 September, overlapping with the official conference from 4-15 September in Peking. As well as running seminars in Huairou, the NGOs aim to influence the conference document, the "Platform for Action", on subjects including reproductive rights, violence against women and the rights of female children.
Many NGO groups attending the forum would, like Amnesty, not normally be welcome in China. It is expected that some women will want to stage protests outside the school-ground confines. Forum organisers yesterday sought clarification of the government's position.
The foreign ministry spokesman, Chen Jian, wasmore conciliatory, saying UN regulations, not Chinese law, applied in areas designated during the meetings as "UN premises". In practice the public security services will decide how much freedom is tolerated within the NGO site. The number of police on patrol in Huairou suggests they will maintain an iron grip.
A first test for China of the realities of hosting an international meeting came, by coincidence, just as Mr Tian was sounding forth.
On the other side of town, within the UN-controlled area for the governmental conference, Amnesty International was holding a press briefing. Pierre Sane, the secretary-general, said the human rights group had come to Peking primarily to lobby at the UN conference for women's rights. But he added: "Sitting here, in the capital of a country whose government has a grave human rights record, we cannot be silent".
Mr Sane highlighted the 16 executions earlier this month in Peking, which were part of a crackdown on crime before the conference. "We have heard virtually every excuse from governments to justify human rights violations, but this is simply unbelievable. To welcome the world to Peking, must people die?" he asked.
Although Mr Sane spent most time detailing Amnesty's agenda for the "Platform for Action", it is clear the organisation is ready to confront China on human rights issues: "You can be sure that if human rights violations are committed while we're here, we will speak up."
China had little choice over granting Amnesty staff visas because the organisation is accredited by the UN at the official conference and has taken part in the preliminary stages. Mr Sane said it would have seemed "extremely odd" to have blocked the group.
Mr Chen dismissed Amnesty's remarks, and he said that the executions "didn't happen", although the official Peking newspapers have reported on the two groups of executions in detail.
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