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Human rights activists urge IOC not to award 2022 Olympics to Beijing

July 27, 2015

By Cherie Chan and Andrew Jacobs

New York Times, July 27, 2015 - With just days to go before the International Olympic Committee decides whether Almaty, Kazakhstan, or Beijing will host the 2022 Winter Olympics, human rights advocates are waging a vigorous campaign to dissuade the committee from choosing China, citing a widening crackdown on rights defense lawyers, political activists and ethnic minorities.

Golog Jigme, an exiled Tibetan monk, has urged that Beijing not be awarded the 2022 Winter Games.Credit Courtesy of Golog Jigme

Groups such as Human Rights Watch have criticized the committee, which will decide the host city in a secret ballot on Friday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as not seriously considering the Internet censorship and government repression that has intensified since Beijing hosted the Summer Games in 2008. A petition released by prominent Chinese rights advocates on Friday said choosing China would contradict the Olympics’ stated goal of “promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

Then there is the argument made by Golog Jigme, a 46-year-old exiled Tibetan Buddhist monk who is making a personal appeal to Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee’s president, explaining how the committee’s decisions can affect ordinary people and embolden a government that is increasingly inured to criticism of its human rights record.

In 2008, Golog Jigme said, he was detained and tortured after helping to produce a documentary, “Leaving Fear Behind” that explored the mixed sentiments of ordinary Tibetans in the prelude to the 2008 Summer Games. The film’s co-producer, Dhondup Wangchen, was released last year after serving six years in prison on charges of subversion.

On July 17, Golog Jigme, now living in Switzerland, sent a letter to Mr. Bach asking if he could make his appeal face to face.

“I would very much like to show you the film in person so you can see for yourself how the Tibetan people suffer under Chinese rule, hear them speak about what they thought about the 2008 Games taking being given to China when the human rights situation for them is so awful,” he wrote in the letter, a copy of which was provided to The New York Times.

As of Monday, Mr. Bach, who also lives in Switzerland, had yet to respond.

Golog Jigme said in an interview that he was troubled that the International Olympic Committee would award the Winter Games to Beijing after the Chinese government broke promises it made during its earlier bid for the Olympics.

At the time, China assured the committee that it would improve press freedom, honor its international human rights commitments and even allow protests during the games. Although foreign journalists were given unfiltered Internet access at the official media center in Beijing, the government vigorously censored negative news about the games and security officials made sure that the designated protest zones set up around the city were empty. (Many who applied to protest in those areas were detained while filing their applications.)

“The fact that the Olympic Games was awarded to China was extremely hard for us, the Tibetans, to accept,” Golog Jigme said. “The Olympic Games is such an important and prestigious games.”

“How can the I.O.C. award such prestige to China?” he said.

Golog Jigme’s account suggests the lengths to which the Chinese government has gone to suppress public narratives that conflict with its official version of events. “Leaving Fear Behind” featured ordinary Tibetans speaking openly about their misgivings at a time when much of the country was portrayed as ecstatic about the games.

The film was largely the handiwork of his friend Mr. Wangchen, a businessman and self-taught filmmaker who spent five months interviewing Tibetans about their lives under Chinese rule. The 40 hours of footage were condensed into a 25-minute film that focused on their frustrations over the flood of ethnic Han Chinese migrants to the region, the increasing limits on religion and their reverence for the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader whom Beijing considers an enemy of the state.

“We wanted to prove to the international community that the I.O.C. awarded the 2008 Olympic Games to China based on lies,” Golog Jigme said. “We wanted to fight against the Chinese government’s propaganda. What they said about Tibetans enjoying freedom and that Tibet is a harmonious community, were all lies.”

In March 2008, just days after the film was smuggled out of China, the authorities detained both men. Over the next 52 days, Golog Jigme said, he was tortured by the police, who wanted him to reveal the identities of the Tibetans who had spoken on camera.

“I even had to pretend that I didn’t know my father, who also appeared in the film,” said Golog Jigme, who said his interrogators hung him by his arms from the ceiling for hours while burning him with an electric baton.

Although he was eventually released, he was detained again, in 2009 and 2012. It was during the last detention that he escaped his captors.

In May 2014, after 20 months hiding in the mountains of Tibet, Golog Jigme fled across the border to India. In January, he arrived in Switzerland.

It is unclear whether his plea to the International Olympic Committee will have any impact. Human rights advocates are not especially optimistic. Beijing is considered to have a good chance of winning the 2022 Winter Games, given its success in orchestrating the 2008 Olympics. Then there is the dismal human rights record of Kazakhstan, which also jails government critics and has been led by the same man, Nursultan Nazarbayev, since 1989.

In a letter released last week, Human Rights Watch called on the International Olympic Committee to ensure that whichever country wins the games abides by the package of overhauls that was adopted by the committee in 2014. The Olympic charter, as it is called, requires host countries to uphold press freedom and identifies “human dignity” as an essential element of the Olympic movement.

In an email exchange last week, Emmanuelle Moreau, a spokeswoman for the International Olympic Committee, said that China and Kazakhstan had provided “assurances” that they would abide by the new charter, but she acknowledged that the committee has limited sway over Olympic hosts. “The I.O.C. is not a world government,” she wrote, and we must “respect the laws of sovereign states.”

In their public letter last week, the more than 200 signers of the petition calling on the International Olympic Committee to reject Beijing’s bid said such a position was not good enough. Granting Beijing the 2022 Winter Games, they said, would be interpreted by China as an international endorsement, emboldening a government that has become increasingly intolerant of dissent.

“Allowing Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics would send the world a message that China’s human rights abuses are being endorsed by the I.O.C., making the 2022 Games look strikingly similar to the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the 1980 Moscow Olympics,” the letter said. “We dream that one day the sacred Olympic flame will cast a light on a free China. For now, under this government, any more Olympic Games would go down in history as the Shame Games, and make the I.O.C. an accomplice in the abuse of human rights in the name of the Olympics.”

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