China short on promise to improve rights for '08 Games

Updated: April 30, 2007, 1:18 AM ET
Associated Press

BEIJING -- China has failed to live up to promises to improve human rights for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing despite reforms to the death penalty system and more freedoms for foreign reporters, Amnesty International said in a report Monday.

The report catalogs a wide range of persistent abuses, from extensive use of detention without trial to the persecution of civil rights activists and new methods to rein in the domestic media and censor the Internet.

The London-based group welcomed the new rules for foreign journalist and the referral of all death sentences to China's Supreme Court since the start of the year.

"Disappointingly, they have been matched by moves to expand detention without trial and house arrest of activists, and by a tightening of controls over domestic media and the Internet," Catherine Baber, deputy Asia-Pacific director of Amnesty International, said in a statement.

No Chinese official was immediately available to comment on the report. China has denounced previous Amnesty reports, saying it was fulfilling all the commitments made in its bid for the Games .

The report called on the International Olympic Committee to push Beijing more to improve its human rights record, especially on issues relating to the Olympics.

"The IOC cannot want an Olympics that is tainted with human rights abuses -- whether families forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for sports arenas or growing numbers of peaceful activists held under house arrest," Baber said.

The report said if private discussions were not working, the "IOC should consider making these concerns public, especially with the Olympics little more than a year away."

Many of the ills cited by the group have been endemic for years in China. But in bidding for the Games back in 2001, Chinese leaders promised IOC members that the Olympics would lead to an improved climate for human rights and media freedoms.

IOC members have said they expect Beijing to keep its word. The organization, whose top officials just returned from two weeks of meetings with the Chinese government in Beijing, said they needed more time before commenting on the Amnesty report.

"It's clearly comprehensive and we want to take the time to digest it before making any further reaction," said IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies.

Andrew J. Nathan, political science department chairman at Columbia University, said it wasn't a surprise that China hadn't lived up to its commitments since winning the bid.

"Those who have been tracking China's implementation of commitments to improve its human rights record know it hasn't been improving," said Nathan.

He said the government had made a few "cosmetic changes," including loosening restrictions on foreign media, but generally they've been "tightening rather than liberalizing" rights restrictions.

Nathan, who chaired the advisory committee of New York-based Human Rights Watch in Asia from 1995 to 2000 and continues to serve as a member, said he believes China could still bend under pressure if organizations and companies continue to speak up in the coming year.

"We still have a year to go, so it is extremely important that Amnesty International join other organizations looking at this to say what they've found," he said.

China has tightened the rules over the application of the death penalty following a series of high-profile cases involving wrongful convictions and torture. Starting Jan. 1, lower courts were prohibited from approving executions on their own.

Amnesty International put the recorded number of executions in 2006 at more than 1,000 people. But it said the true figure is believed to be as high as 8,000.

In December, China announced the temporary abolishment of decades-old rules requiring foreign reporters to obtain government approval for all travel and interviews. Under the new rules, in place until mid-October 2008, only the consent of the person to be interviewed is needed.

But the change was announced at the same time a Beijing court took five minutes to reject an appeal by Zhao Yan, a New York Times researcher, of his three-year prison sentence. Zhao was convicted of fraud, but press advocacy groups saw his case as a political vendetta for Zhao's pre-Times career as a crusading, investigative reporter and as a warning to Chinese journalists.

The different signals underscore China's conflicting treatment of the media. The communist government hopes the Olympics will burnish China's international image and knows positive foreign reports will help. At the same time, it has clamped down on domestic media and Internet essayists, fearing unfettered reporting would weaken the Communist Party's authority.

"The failure to ensure equal rights and freedoms for both foreign and domestic journalists smacks of double standards -- China has yet to meet its promise to ensure 'complete media freedom' for the Olympics," Baber said.

The report was critical of the continued use of the "re-education through labor" system. In place in since 1957, it allows police to jail a crime suspect for up to four years without a trial. Critics say it is misused to detain political or religious activists, and violates suspects' rights.

"Fears remain that these abusive systems are being used to detain petty criminals, vagrants, drug addicts and others in order to 'clean up' Beijing ahead of the Olympics," the report said.

Beijing's push to build modern sporting venues and transportation facilities and remake run-down neighborhoods has contributed to civil rights abuses, Amnesty International said. It cited the case of Ye Guozhu, a Beijing resident serving four years in jail for protesting alleged forced evictions tied to Olympic preparation.


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press