Beijing under fire as torch reaches Tibet

By Mure Dickie in Beijing

China will take the Olympic torch on a truncated trip to Tibet this weekend in spite of a continuing crackdown on dissent in the region following anti-government protests and riots in March.

The announcement came as authorities on Wednesday maintained a tight security cordon around the “sacred flame” during its tour of China’s sometimes restive western region of Xinjiang.

While organisers said on Wednesday that the Lhasa leg of the relay would be cut to one day from the three planned before the protests, the decision to push ahead will fuel international scrutiny of the Tibet crackdown.

Amnesty International, the human rights group, on Wednesday called on China to clarify the status of the over 1,000 people it said had been detained in March.

“There is very little information coming out of Tibet, but the information we have paints a dire picture of arbitrary detentions and abuse of detainees,” Amnesty said.

Activists have complained that Beijing is using the torch for publicity purposes while barring international human rights officials and journalists from investigating events in Tibet.

“Using Tibet for a propaganda opportunity such as the Olympic torch relay — while sealing it to independent investigators — is both unconscionable and reckless,” watchdog Human Rights Watch said.

The Beijing Games organising committee (BOCOG) is tightly limiting the number of international journalists allowed into Tibet to report on the torch’s progress.

In mainly Muslim Xinjiang, where many residents from the Uighur ethnic group resent Chinese rule, authorities have kept close curbs on the international media covering the relay.

While China has promised freedom of reporting on Olympic activities, journalists in the far-western city of Kashgar said on Wednesday that officials had even sought to prevent them from interviewing the carefully chosen spectators permitted to line the relay route.

The restrictions were part of a security clampdown in which the “entire police resources” of Urumqi, the regional capital, were dedicated to torch security, according to a Bocog report.

Security and crowd-control measures have been tightened throughout the torch’s passage around China, in part because the enthusiasm of crowds in eastern provinces created real dangers to public safety.

In Xinjiang, where over-enthusiasm was unlikely to be such a problem, authorities adopted all the toughest measures tried in other cities, ordering most citizens to stay at home and watch the relay on television.

Officials said spectators should not stand on bridges or even “stand by windows” as the torch passed.

Authorities have reported cases of terrorism or sabotage in Xinjiang and Tibet in recent years, but critics have said the greatest risk is of official over-reaction to any peaceful protests.

The International Olympic Committee has been concerned enough about the issue to prepare official comments if demonstrations during the Chinese relay lead to injuries or deaths.

Copyright © 2008 Financial Times

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