China urged to free 130 Tiananmen prisoners

Image: A visitor takes a rest on Tiananmen Square
A view of Tiananmen Square ahead of the 19th anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests that left hundreds, possibly thousands, dead. Peter Parks / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Dozens of people remain imprisoned for taking part in the 1989 pro-democracy protests centered in Tiananmen Square, but releasing them would improve China's image ahead of the Beijing Olympics this summer, a human rights group said.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said about 130 prisoners are still being held for their role in the demonstrations that were crushed in a brutal military crackdown. The square in the heart of the Chinese capital is expected to feature prominently in media coverage of the Olympics, although authorities worry about the possibility of fresh protests marring the event.

"The Chinese government should show the global Olympic audience it's serious about human rights by releasing the Tiananmen detainees," Sophie Richardson, the group's Asia advocacy director, said in a statement released Monday in New York.

This year is the 19th anniversary of the June 3-4 military assault on the protesters in which hundreds, possibly thousands, were killed. China's Communist leaders portray the protest as an anti-government riot and have never offered a full accounting of the crackdown.

Human rights pledge
China had pledged to improve its human rights situation when bidding to host the 2008 Olympics. But one Tiananmen activist, whose son was killed as he hid from soldiers enforcing martial law, scoffed when asked whether the August games had spurred the government to change its attitude.

"I don't have this kind of illusion," said Ding Zilin, co-founder of the Tiananmen Mothers, a group representing families of those who died. She has campaigned to get the government to acknowledge those killed in the crackdown and compensate their families for the deaths.

"Have you noticed that China, because of the Olympics, has been more open or improved? Is it possible?" she asked, pointing out with a deep sigh that some activist friends were placed under house arrest this year.

No official figure is available of the number of people who remain jailed in connection with the protests. Liu Xiaobo, an Internet writer who was jailed for nearly five years after the protests, said he knows of up to eight people serving life sentences in Beijing's No. 2 Prison on charges of organizing people to oppose the soldiers or taking part in acts such as the burning of police or army vehicles during the crackdown.

China Human Rights Defenders, a network of activists and rights monitoring groups, released a list Tuesday with the names of eight Beijing residents who remain imprisoned. A handful of activists had also been placed under house arrest or monitored by police in the days leading up to the anniversary, the group said.

No official comments on prisoner tally
Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang declined to comment on prisoner numbers or any possible future releases, calling that a matter for other government departments.

However, he repeated China's position that the government has been improving human rights by reforming the legal system and raising living standards.

"We will unswervingly stand on the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics and the promotion of human rights of China," Qin said at a regularly scheduled news conference.

Security is traditionally ratcheted up around the June 4 anniversary, but Liu said this year has been relatively relaxed, with police only appearing outside his Beijing apartment on June 1, several days later than usual.

Liu is still unable to publish inside China, his phone is bugged and he is frequently called in by police for discussions on topics ranging from unrest in Tibet to the government response to last month's earthquake in the southwestern province of Sichuan.

Despite a public taboo on discussing the protests and crackdown, Liu said interest in the events appears greater now than at the 10th anniversary in 1999.