Robert Ménard

The Olympic prisoners

Email|Print| Text size + By Robert Ménard
January 12, 2008

THE OLYMPIC Games have their anthem, their rings, their heroes, and their sponsors. Now, with the Beijing 2008 games, they have their prisoners. The Chinese government is not just building fine stadiums, it is also arresting those who dare to condemn human rights violations in China. The political police are getting ready for the Olympics in their own way, bringing charges of subversion against those who remind people of the promises the government made in 2001 to improve respect for basic freedoms.

Late last month, police arrested leading human rights activist Hu Jia at his Beijing home.

Before arriving, they cut his phone lines and Internet connection so that he would be unable to alert his friends in China and abroad.

Before leaving, they threatened his wife, Zeng Jinyan, with reprisals. A well-known blogger who was named by Time magazine as one of the world's 100 most influential people in 2007, Zeng is now alone with their 2-month-old daughter, cut off from the world. The couple had been under house arrest since May.

Hu is the "prisoner of the Olympic Games." On his website, he had been keeping a countdown of the days left to the inauguration of the games on Aug. 8, as well as a count of the days he had spent under house arrest.

Hu is opposed to a boycott of the Olympics. He was enthusiastic about the idea of thousands of foreign journalists coming to China because he thought they would talk about its destitute and its oppressed dissidents.

He is also opposed to a boycott because he is a patriot. He proved this by taking part in the demonstrations against Japanese nationalism in the early 2000s and by defending China's endangered flora and fauna.

Only 34, Hu has been campaigning for 10 years for the environment, those with HIV/AIDS, and political prisoners. It was his support for Friends of Nature that drew him into activism.

He founded one of the first organizations offering care and comfort to those with HIV and AIDS who, despite their large numbers, are neglected by officials in China.

Recently nominated for the European parliament's Sakharov prize, Hu and Zeng embody the courageous and tenacious defense of free expression in China.

They are so well known by foreign diplomats and the international media that it was assumed their high profile rendered them untouchable.

Hu is not the only prisoner of the Olympic Games. Wang Dejia, a writer who posts his comments online, was arrested on Dec. 13 in the southern province of Guangxi and charged with "subverting state authority" because of a blog entry entitled, "The Olympic Games in handcuffs will just bring misfortune on the population."

One would expect an outcry in response to such a level of repression. All those looking forward to the 2008 Beijing games should speak out, as it is impossible to imagine that this great sports event will not be marred by the detention of people such as Hu and Wang.

But the International Olympic Committee is saying nothing and is rejecting all appeals for help. The Olympic sponsors are not saying anything either.

And foreign diplomats rarely speak out in defense of China's political prisoners because they are too scared of upsetting Beijing.

Like many others, we had long thought that the government would ease the pressure and allow human rights activists a chance, albeit a limited one, of expressing themselves before and during the games.

But the political police have been given their orders - to arrest dissidents, keep files on foreign journalists, and compile a blacklist of foreign human rights activists. Such repression will only radicalize the protesters.

The Tibetans, defenders of religious freedom, and all those who feel betrayed are planning to demonstrate during the games.

They may spoil the party. And who is to blame? The Chinese government and only the Chinese government.

Robert Ménard is executive director of Reporters Without Borders.

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