News & Current Affairs

March 29, 2009

Spain court mulls US torture case

Spain court mulls US torture case

An unnamed inmate sleeps in his cell at Guantanamo, file image

Some inmates were subjected to controversial interrogation techniques

Spanish judges have agreed to consider charging six former US officials with providing legal justification for alleged torture at Guantanamo Bay.

Human rights lawyers brought the case against the six, who all served under former President George W Bush.

Among those named was former defence official Douglas Feith, who said the charges against him “made no sense”.

Spanish courts can prosecute offences such as torture or war crimes even if they occurred in other countries.

The former officials – who include ex-Attorney-General Alberto Gonzalez – could face arrest on leaving the US if the courts decide to issue warrants.

‘Controversial position’

The lawyers who brought the case accuse the six of providing legal cover to allow the security services to use techniques of interrogation such as “waterboarding”.

They say the methods amounted to torture.

Mr Feith, a former under-secretary for defence, rebuffed the accusations.

“The charges as related to me make no sense,” he said.

“They criticise me for promoting a controversial position that I never advocated.”

The lawyers took their accusations to Judge Baltasar Garzon, who agreed to allow state prosecutors to decide if the case has merit.

Judge Garzon was responsible for bringing a prosecution against former Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet, who was arrested in the UK in 1998.

Spain’s courts have also launched investigations over alleged crimes in Argentina, Tibet, El Salvador and Rwanda.

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August 15, 2008

British protester held in Beijing

British protester held in Beijing

The Free Tibet banner

The banner was unfurled on a building next to an Olympic promotion

A British man has been held by police in China after unfurling a pro-Tibet banner on a building in Beijing.

Philip Kirk, 24, of St Albans, Herts, and Australian-Canadian Nicole Rycroft, 41, scaled the Central Television building to make their protest.

The pair, from the group Students for a Free Tibet, and three other supporting protesters were detained on Friday.

Han Shan, spokesman for the campaign group, said the banner read “Free Tibet” in English and Chinese.

Kate Woznow, also from the group, said the protest happened at the headquarters of the state-owned China Central Television building in east Beijing.

She said Mr Kirk and Ms Rycroft were detained after climbing up part of the building to reveal the banner.

Previous protests

Last week, two other British pro-Tibet protesters, Lucy Fairbrother, 23, from Cambridge, and Iain Thom, 24, from Edinburgh, were deported after scaling a 120ft-high (36.5m) lighting pole and unfurling banners reading “One World, One Dream, Free Tibet” and “Tibet will be free”.

The activists said the action had been worth it – but their job was not done and there would be more protests during the games.

We are in touch with the Chinese authorities and we are seeking further details
British embassy spokesman

Eight demonstrators from Students for a Free Tibet were also detained on Wednesday after staging a demonstration.

Wang Wenjie, of the Beijing Public Security Bureau, said he did not have any information about the latest protest.

A spokesman for the British embassy in Beijing said: “We are in touch with the Chinese authorities and we are seeking further details.”

Officials expect Mr Kirk to be deported some time on Friday.

Meanwhile, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Qin Gang, warned activists on Wednesday to obey the law in China, which does not allow unauthorized protests.

He said: “No matter Chinese citizens or foreigners, in China if you want to have processions or demonstrations, you should abide by Chinese laws and regulations.”

August 9, 2008

Protest attempt at Olympic event

Protest attempt at Olympic event

Christina Chen and another protester tries to display Tibetan flag at the equestrian event in Hong Kong

Security staff moved in as soon as the pair tried to display the Tibetan flag

A student who tried to unveil a Tibetan flag during the first day of Olympic competition has been removed by officials from an equestrian event.

Christina Chan tried to display the flag, hidden under a Canadian flag, at the dressage in Hong Kong.

She was asked to leave, but refused to do so, and was later removed from the arena with a second protester.

The Games opened in Beijing on Friday with a spectacular display of fireworks, music and dancing.

Some 10,000 performers took part in the ceremony, watched on TV by an estimated one billion people, before athletes paraded around the national stadium.

Security was tight in the capital, and three US activists were arrested after holding a pro-Tibet protest.

House rules

Ms Chan sat in the front row of the dressage arena in the Sha Tin district of Hong Kong, when the first full day of the Games got under way.

Christina Chan is removed from the equestrian event in Hong Kong

Christina Chan refused to leave and was later removed

She was holding a Tibetan flag concealed under a Canadian flag, and when she and another protester tried to display it, several security officials covered her with a blue cloth.

She was asked to leave, but refused to do so, and was later carried out of the venue.

“She was sort of disturbing other spectators around her, which is against the house rules,” equestrian event spokesman Mark Pinkstone said.

Ms Chan had also protested during the Hong Kong leg of the Olympic torch relay in May.

China bans the Tibetan flag from events under rules which prevent the display of flags of countries not competing in the Games.

Anti-government riots broke out in the Tibetan capital Lhasa and elsewhere in China in March.

Pro-Tibet groups say there have been many arrests and beatings in the security crackdown which followed.

August 8, 2008

Beijing ready for Olympic opening

Beijing ready for Olympic opening

Olympic volunteers in Beijing, 08/08

Officials are concerned that hazy conditions may affect the ceremony

The Chinese capital, Beijing, is preparing to open the 2008 Olympic Games with a lavish ceremony, amid hazy skies and ongoing pollution concerns.

The event will involve about 10,000 performers, and will be watched on TV by an estimated one billion people.

The lead-up to the Games has been dogged by issues such as China’s rights record, internet access, and pollution.

US President George W Bush was among several world leaders to express concern over a crackdown on dissidents.

Mr Bush told an audience at the US embassy in Beijing on Friday: “We continue to be candid about our belief that all people should have the freedom to say what they think and worship as they choose.”

Meanwhile, 40 Olympic athletes wrote to Chinese President Hu Jintao expressing their concerns over Beijing’s handling of anti-Chinese unrest in Tibet.

And Tibetans have held angry protests in Nepal, with hundreds reported to have been arrested in the capital, Kathmandu.

China frequently dismisses criticism over its domestic policies – particularly in Tibet – as interference in its internal affairs.

Muted city

The 2008 Olympics have been described as the most politicised Games since the boycott era of the early 1980s.

Pollution graph

But after a succession of controversial issues in the build-up to the Games, the focus is now shifting to the opening ceremony.

It has taken seven years of planning, and costs are estimated to have hit a record-breaking $40bn (£20bn).

Film director Zhang Yimou has been charged with portraying 5,000 years of Chinese history in one show.

It will be staged at China’s new national stadium – known as the Bird’s Nest because of its steel lattice construction – and some 10,000 performers will take part.

Jacques Rogge, the head of the International Olympic Committee, who has repeatedly defended the decision to let China host the Olympics, said he hoped the Games would help the world to understand China, and China to understand the world.

But human-rights groups have continued to condemn curbs on journalists covering the Games.

In a statement issued on Friday, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch said: “As the 2008 Olympic Games open in Beijing, foreign journalists in China face a host of severe restrictions, ranging from harassment to a censored internet.”

With the authorities determined to clamp down on any possible security concern, some 100,000 extra troops and police have been deployed in the capital over recent weeks.

The BBC’s Michael Bristow, in Beijing, described the mood in the city as muted.

He said streets had been blocked off, there were few cars on the roads and Olympic volunteers seemed to outnumber ordinary people.

China’s ‘extraordinary’ effort

On the morning of the opening ceremony, a BBC reading suggested Beijing’s air quality remained below World Health Organization (WHO) standards.

Visibility was also very poor on Friday, with one official warning that the cloud could interfere with the ceremony.

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We hope the games will show our guests China today, not China thirty years ago

Roc, China

“There are clouds covering Beijing and we are really concerned that will have an influence on tonight’s ceremony,” said Guo Hu, director of the Beijing Meteorological Observatory.

But Mr Guo is predicting that heavy rain over the weekend will clear the skies, and he warned that hazy conditions should not be confused with high levels of pollution.

“If the visibility is not good it does not mean the air quality is not good,” he said.

On Thursday, Mr Rogge said if the pollution was bad, events which lasted more than an hour could be shifted or postponed.

But he also praised China’s “extraordinary” efforts to cut pollution ahead of the Games, saying there was no danger to athletes’ health.

August 7, 2008

Beijing air ‘safe for athletes’

Beijing air ‘safe for athletes’

Security personnel stand in front of a Bird's Nest stadium hidden by haze on 7 August 2008

Concerns over air quality have persisted in the run-up to the Games

Beijing’s air quality poses no risk to athletes’ health, Jacques¬† Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, has told reporters.

Mr Rogge said checks were in place to protect competitors amid persistent concerns about poor air quality.

He was speaking as dignitaries from around the world gathered in China’s capital for Friday’s opening ceremony.

Among them is US President George Bush, who earlier expressed “deep concerns” about Beijing’s human rights record.

Speaking in the Thai capital, Bangkok, before travelling to the Games, Mr Bush praised China’s economy but said only respect for human rights would let it realize its full potential.

China later rejected Mr Bush’s criticisms as “interference” in its internal affairs.

Air target missed

A day before the Games, a BBC reading suggested Beijing’s air quality was far below World Health Organisation (WHO) standards.

It put levels of particulate matter (PM10) at 191 micrograms per cubic metre. This far exceeds the WHO target of 50 micrograms/cubic metre, and also exceeds the WHO target for developing countries of 150 micrograms/cubic metre.

Graph

But Mr Rogge insisted there was no threat to Olympic competitors.

“Of course we prefer clear skies, but the most important thing is that the health of the athletes is protected,” Mr Rogge said in the news conference.

He said there was “absolutely no danger” to the health of athletes taking part in events that last less than one hour. But he said if the pollution was bad, events which lasted more than that could be shifted or postponed.

Mr Rogge urged reporters to distinguish between fog and pollution – a point, correspondents say, often made by Chinese authorities.

“The fog, you see, is based on the basis of humidity and heat. It does not mean that this fog is the same as pollution,” he said.

And he praised China’s efforts to clean up the air around Beijing – efforts, he said, which would “continue and have a lasting influence on the climate of Beijing”.

Separately, Mr Rogge said athletes would be prevented from making any political statement or protest in official venues – in accordance with Rule 51 of the Olympic charter, which forbids athletes from making political, religious, commercial or racial propaganda.

But he said they were free to do this in protest areas provided by Chinese authorities, and that “common sense” would be used to judge violations.

China defense

Earlier in the day, the Olympic torch began making its last stops on a journey that has seen it pass through five continents.

America stands in firm opposition to China’s detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists
President Bush

Patriotic crowds lined the mist-shrouded Great Wall waving fans and cheering, while streams of confetti shot into the air as the torch was lit from the Olympic flame.

The torch, while welcomed in many nations, has also been a magnet for protesters critical of China’s respect for rights.

Mr Bush hit out at China’s “detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists” before he arrived in China for the opening ceremony.

But China offered a robust defence of its record in response, insisting it “put its people first”.

In other developments:

  • The two Koreas said they would not march together at the opening ceremony, a reversal on the last two Olympic Games
  • Tibetan groups have held large protests in both India and Nepal on the eve of the Games
  • China has selected basketball star Yao Ming to carry the national flag in the opening ceremony.

Bush chides Beijing over rights

Bush chides Beijing over rights

US President George W Bush has expressed “deep concerns” over China’s human rights record in a speech on the eve of the Beijing Olympics.

“The US believes the people of China deserve the fundamental liberty that is the natural right of all human beings,” he said in the Thai capital Bangkok.

He praised China’s economy but said only respect for human rights would let it realise its full potential.

Mr Bush has been criticised by some campaigners for going to the Games.

He was due to fly to Beijing following the speech in Bangkok, a stop on his final trip to Asia before he leaves office in January.

The wide-ranging address, which included criticism of the regime in Burma, was more nuanced than Mr Bush’s past speeches on China.

It is unlikely to cause much offence in China, our correspondent says, and many people will see it more as a valedictory speech for Mr Bush’s record in Asia rather than an outline of future US policy.

‘Firm opposition’

President Bush said he was optimistic about China’s future and said change in China would arrive “on its own terms”.

Young people who grow up with the freedom to trade goods will ultimately demand the freedom to trade ideas…
George W Bush
US president

But his criticisms of China’s human rights record were clear.

“America stands in firm opposition to China’s detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists,” he said.

When it was controversially awarded the games in 2001 by the International Olympic Committee, Beijing promised to make improvements in human rights, media freedoms and the provision of health and education.

But campaigners, such as Amnesty International, say Chinese activists have been jailed, people made homeless, journalists detained and websites blocked, while there has been increased use of labour camps and prison beatings.

In March, China suppressed violent anti-government protests in Tibet. Beijing said rioters killed at least 19 people, but Tibetan exiles said security forces killed dozens of protesters in the worst unrest in Tibet for 20 years.

The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled Buddhist leader, rejected Beijing’s claims he was behind the riots and said he expressed good wishes for the success of Games.

On Thursday, at least 1,500 Buddhists were holding a protest in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu against what they called China’s violation of religious freedom in Tibet. Correspondents say there have been scuffles with police.

In Beijing, police dragged away three US Christians who tried to demonstrate on Tiananmen Square in support of religious freedom.

Four pro-Tibet activists from Britain and the US were arrested and held briefly in the city on Wednesday after a protest close to the Olympic stadium.

Burma refugees

In his address, Mr Bush said the US recognised that the growth sparked by China’s free market reforms was “good for the Chinese people” and the country’s’ purchasing power was “good for the world”.

On foreign policy, he commended China’s “critical leadership role” in the negotiations to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, and the “constructive relationship” between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan.

He also called for an end to what he described as tyranny in Thailand’s neighbour, Burma.

Friday’s Olympic opening ceremony coincides with the 20th anniversary of a democracy uprising in Burma, which was crushed by the military.

First lady Laura Bush flew to the Thai-Burmese border to spend the day at the Mae La refugee camp where about 35,000 refugees live, having fled their homes.

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