March 26, 2008

China: Olympic Torch Run Inflames Protesters

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Activists brought the question of Beijing’s moral authority to hold the Olympic Games home to Olympia with a protest at the start of the torch relay.

Below is an article written by Anthee Carasava and published by the International Herald Tribune:

Activists angered by the Chinese crackdown in Tibet disrupted the Olympic flame-lighting ceremony Monday [24 March 2008], unfurling a banner and calling for a boycott of the Beijing Summer Games.

The incident occurred as Liu Qi, president of the Beijing Organizing Committee, was addressing thousands of spectators, dignitaries and Olympics officials, minutes into a flame-lighting ceremony guarded by 1,000 police officers and commandos.

The brief disruption was broadcast live by Greek national television but the Chinese state channel cut to a pre-recorded scene.

The authorities issued no immediate details of the incident, but the Athens chapter of Reporters without Borders, a media rights group based in Paris, said three of its members had staged the protest. The activists were taken to a local police station and faced possible charges for breaking into the ceremony's ancient grounds and flashing a black banner depicting the Games' trademark Olympic rings as handcuffs.

"We cannot let the Chinese government seize the Olympic flame, a symbol of peace, without denouncing the dramatic situation of human rights in the country," the group said.

Moments after the incident, a Tibetan woman doused herself in red paint and lay in the road before a torch runner while the police arrested two other Tibetan protesters planning a peaceful demonstration a kilometer and a half, or about one mile, from the ancient sanctuary at the birthplace of the Olympics Games.

"They were stalking me from the moment I touched down to Greece," said Tenzin Dorjee, a Tibetan-American activist who arrived Saturday to help orchestrate the peaceful demonstrations.

"All we wanted to do was break into the torch relay and shout that this is a torch of shame as the Chinese government continues to kill hundreds of our people," he said in a telephone interview from the police precinct in Ancient Olympia. Dorjee said about 20 undercover police officers had dragged him away from the central square in Ancient Olympia and had detained him with an accompanying photographer.

"Neither of us were injured. But I don't know how long we'll be in here," he said before the phone connection was cut.

Dorjee was arrested last April in Tibet for protesting China's trial ascent of Mount Everest with the Olympic torch.

China's communist leadership has faced a public relations disaster since demonstrations turned violent in the Tibetan capital on March 10 [2008], the 49th anniversary of a failed uprising against communist rule.

Beijing says 22 people have died in the clashes but the toll has been impossible to confirm because of a news blackout imposed by China on the country's interior.

Earlier Monday, Dorjee confronted the head of the International Olympic Committee at his hotel lobby, demanding that Tibet be removed from the Olympic torch relay, and that dignitaries boycott the Games' August 8 opening ceremony.

The idea, suggested last week by Reporters without Borders, touched off a firestorm when Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner of France said the 27-member European Union was "considering" such a boycott. But he quickly retreated, saying that it was "unrealistic." The Games, expected to attract 500,000 tourists and four billion television viewers, are being framed by many China observers as the country's arrival on the world stage.

The ceremony Monday marked the official countdown to the Games as Maria Nafpliotou, a raven-haired actress playing an ancient priestess, ignited the Olympic flame by the suns' rays in a burnished-steel mirror mounted in the ruins of a sanctuary where Greeks prayed during the ancient Games in 776 B.C.

From Olympia, the flame - the symbol of the Games - will be carried through Greece for a week before being placed on a Chinese flight to Beijing, where it will then take off for the longest and most ambitious relay planned ever: a 137,000 kilometer, 130 day route that will cross all five continents and climb to the summit of Mount Everest before finally arriving at the National Stadium in Beijing for the August 8 [2008] opening ceremony