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U.S., U.K. activists try to grab Olympic spotlight

Activists from the U.S. and U.K. unfurled pro-Tibet banners and spoke out against China’s rights record in Tiananmen Square on Wednesday in the first attempts by foreigners in the Chinese capital to stage protests under the spotlight of the Olympic Games.
Image: Beijing, Olympics, Tibet protest
In this photo made available by Students for a Free Tibet, a protester hangs a banner which reads, "one world one dream", the Beijing 2008 Olympic motto, and "free Tibet" beneath. Students for a Free Tibet via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Foreign activists unfurled pro-Tibet banners at a key Olympics venue Wednesday and spoke out against China’s rights record in Tiananmen Square, in the first attempts to use the spotlight of the games to raise other issues.

One athlete, U.S. swim star Amanda Beard, also made a public political gesture, on behalf of animal rights.

All of the groups tangled with Chinese authorities, who are determined to make sure the communist government’s plan for the Beijing Games to be an international showcase for the country goes off without a hitch.

No arrests were reported despite the rare displays of dissent in the capital, where normally stringent controls over criticism of the government have been tightened even further for the 17-day Olympic competition.

Four foreign activists were led away by police after they hung pro-Tibet banners outside the Beijing National Stadium, where Friday’s opening ceremony will be held.

Two men from Students for a Free Tibet each climbed a light pole in front of the so-called Bird’s Nest and put up the banners at dawn, said Lhadon Tethong, the New York-based group’s executive director. The other two — a man and a woman — provided support from the base of the poles, she said.

It was the first demonstration at a games venue. Beijing organizers condemned the protest.

“We express our strong opposition,” said Sun Weide, spokesman for the Beijing Olympics organizing committee. “In terms of assembly and demonstrations, China has related laws and regulations. We hope that foreigners will respect the related Chinese laws and regulations.”

Sun said the demonstrators were “persuaded to leave” by police, who were tipped by local residents. The four have not been arrested or taken to a police station, he said.

International Olympic Committee spokeswoman Emmanuelle Moreau said organizers should expect people to “use the platform of the Olympic Games to draw attention to their causes.”

“The IOC are confident Beijing city authorities will assess the situation reasonably and act with tact and understanding,” she said.

Later Wednesday, three Americans spent almost an hour in the iconic Tiananmen Square criticizing Beijing’s handling of issues ranging from forced abortions to the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement to pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989.

“It was important for us that there be a clear voice speaking out against the Chinese government’s abuse of human rights,” Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition in Washington, said in a telephone interview.

The trio also set up a banner in the square that said “Christ is King” and knelt and prayed. Brandi Swindell, national director of the activist group Generation Life, also put out seven roses in memory of those who died in the military crackdown on pro-democracy protests on and near the square in 1989.

They said plainclothes security agents and police officers tried to block the banner with umbrellas and started shoving the group when they tried to walk around the square. The agents eventually pushed them out of the area and made them sit nearby for almost an hour, checking their passports, before letting them go, Mahoney and Swindell said.

“It’s so shocking being an American ... to see the blatant oppression,” Swindell said.

Tibet has been an extremely sensitive topic since protests against almost 50 years of Chinese rule turned violent in the region in March. Many Tibetans insist they were an independent nation before communist troops invaded in 1950, while Beijing says the Himalayan region has been part of its territory for centuries.

The protests prompted a massive crackdown by Chinese security forces. Pro-Tibet groups say scores of monks and nuns have been arrested, imprisoned and beaten since March.

One of Wednesday’s banners said “Tibet will be free” and “Tibet Freedom” in Chinese. The other read, “One World, One Dream” — the slogan for the Beijing Olympics — followed by “Free Tibet.” One of the men also flew the flag of the Dalai Lama’s former Tibetan government.

Tethong’s group identified the protesters as Thom, 24, of Scotland; Lucy Marion, 23, of England; Phill Bartell, 34, of Bridgewater, N.J.; and Tirian Mink, 32, of Portland, Ore.

While Beijing has announced that it would allow applications for public protests in three designated areas, it isn’t immediately clear if any had been accepted. None of the protests Wednesday were in the designated areas.

China’s rights record and its policies in Tibet and Sudan have been a flash point in the run-up to Olympics.

Former Olympic speedskater Joey Cheek had his visa revoked by Chinese authorities Wednesday, hours before he was set to travel to Beijing to urge the government to help make peace in Darfur.

Beard, the reigning Olympic champion in the 200-meter breaststroke, on Wednesday unveiled a poster of herself naked in support of the anti-fur activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The poster’s launch was planned for a hotel but happened outside the Athlete’s Village after Chinese authorities canceled the hotel event.

In Italy, two allies of Premier Silvio Berlusconi triggered an uproar by asking Italian athletes to protest China’s human rights policies with symbolic gestures during the Beijing Olympics — even possibly boycotting the opening ceremony.

The suggestion that athletes could even boycott Friday’s opening ceremony sparked angry reactions from Italian athletes and sports officials in Beijing, and even Berlusconi’s political allies back in Rome.

“Why are they asking sports to replace politics?” Gianni Petrucci, the head of Italy’s Olympic Committee, asked Wednesday from Beijing. “Why don’t they ask businessmen to desert China?”