Protesters Disrupt Lighting of Torch In Ancient Olympia

Despite protesters disrupting the solemn ceremony for the lighting of the Olympic torch in Ancient Olympia, Greece, the flame was lit and has begun its 85,000 mile journey to Beijing for the summer Olympics. Video by AP
By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 25, 2008

BEIJING, March 24 -- Demonstrators denouncing China's record on human rights breached tight security in Ancient Olympia on Monday and disrupted a torch-lighting ceremony that launched the Olympic flame's long journey to Beijing.

Liu Qi, the Communist Party secretary of Beijing, was speaking at the ceremony in southern Greece when at least two protesters ran behind him, video footage of the event showed. One of the protesters unfurled a black flag that showed handcuffs in place of the five Olympic rings. Later, a woman covered in fake blood lay in the center of a nearby road, blocking the path of a torchbearer. Other demonstrators raised posters reading "Free Tibet."

Meanwhile in the Chinese capital, an activist who wrote an open letter urging "human rights, not the Olympics" was sentenced to the maximum five years in prison on a charge of subverting the power of the state. Separately, a former Chinese official jailed over the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests added his name to the voices pushing Beijing to sit down with the Dalai Lama over the recent unrest in Tibet.

The developments came as Chinese officials accused domestic and foreign "separatist" forces of trying to destroy the Aug. 8-24 Olympic Games.

"Their evil purpose is to produce turmoil to interrupt and destroy the 2008 Beijing Olympics, whose theme is peace, and to destroy our country's good stability and unity in order to reach their evil goal of splitting the mother country," said Shan Huimin, a spokeswoman for China's Public Security Ministry. Shan showed reporters graphic riot footage but took no questions.

On Monday afternoon, the government announced the arrest of five Tibetans accused of setting fire to two shops in Lhasa during last week's deadly protests. The blazes killed nine Han Chinese, including an 8-month-old, and a Tibetan. Late Monday, the official New China News Agency reported a clash between pro-Tibet protesters and security forces in China's western Sichuan province -- one of many protests to have erupted since the initial rioting. Authorities said the clash in Garze prefecture left one policemen dead and several others injured.

China is scrambling to avoid a public relations disaster as critics of its crackdown in Tibet and its human rights record step up efforts to use the Olympics to push for reform. The drive has unnerved Olympic sponsors and put the International Olympic Committee on the defensive.

"The IOC is engaged in what I call a 'silent diplomacy' with Chinese authorities since day one of the preparations of the Games," IOC President Jacques Rogge told the Associated Press Monday in southern Greece, where he attended the flame-lighting ceremony. Three Frenchmen from the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders were detained by Greek authorities and charged with the misdemeanor count of offending national symbols, according to the AP.

Rogge repeated his view that the IOC is not a political organization. "We are discussing on a daily basis with Chinese authorities, including discussing these issues," he said, "while strictly respecting the sovereignty of China in its affairs."

Rogge insisted that China's human rights situation has improved since Beijing was awarded the Games in 2001, a view many activists here dispute.

One such activist, Yang Chunlin, 53, was sentenced to five years in prison Monday at the Jiamusi City Intermediate People's Court in northeast Heilongjiang province. As he was being escorted from the court, he was shocked with electric batons, his sister said.

"When we all left the courthouse, we shouted at him that he must appeal. He said, 'No need,' and then tried to say more, but the police who escorted him prodded him with an electric stick," Yang Chunping said. "I saw sparks, and then he was placed into a police car and driven away."

Yang Chunlin's attorney said his client, who has a history of writing dissident essays and calling for political reform, probably received the maximum penalty because he refused to confess and instead maintained his innocence.

"The sentence is very serious," Li Fangping said. "He didn't incite anybody at all. If everyone who speaks freely is accused of subverting state power, then it will be very difficult to guarantee free speech because people won't know what they can say and what they can't."

Yang's case is one of several that have angered officials hoping to present a smooth and orderly Olympics.

Bao Tong, a government critic who was jailed for seven years after the 1989 protests, urged China to sit down for frank discussions with the Dalai Lama.

Bao, once the top aide to the ousted Communist Party chief who opposed the military crackdown in 1989, made his remarks in an e-mail to the Reuters news agency. "So long as the central [government] sits down for dialogue with the Dalai Lama and shows great wisdom, great decisiveness and great boldness of vision, the Lhasa incident can be handled well," he said.

But Shan, the Public Security Ministry spokeswoman, suggested no compromise was on the horizon. "Actions speak louder than words," she said, referring to the riots in Tibet.

Social order had been restored in Lhasa, but 242 police officers were injured, Shan said.

Shan said three Tibetan women set a fire in a clothing shop in the city March 14, killing five women ages 19 to 24. The next day, she said, two Tibetan men broke into a motorcycle shop in Lhasa's Dazi county, set a fire and then fed the blaze with two natural gas containers from a restaurant next door. The shop owner, his wife and 8-month-old son, and two repairmen hid on the second floor and died in the fire, Shan said.

"The suspects confessed their crimes, and the cases are still under investigation," she said.

Researchers Zhang Jie and Liu Liu contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company