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(New York) – In shutting down Beijing’s first-ever gay and lesbian cultural festival, the Chinese government violated basic freedoms and persecuted activists who are addressing the country’s burgeoning AIDS crisis, Human Rights Watch and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network said today in letters to the Chinese authorities.

“China continues to talk about political reform, but closing down a cultural event is a crude reminder of the limits on openness,” said Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “This police raid was an effort to drive China’s gay and lesbian communities underground and to silence open discussions about sexuality throughout the country.”

Human Rights Watch and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network today sent letters detailing these human rights abuses to the Chinese President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, the Ministry of Public Security and the State Council Committee on HIV/AIDS.

Organizers planning the Beijing Gay and Lesbian Culture Festival anticipated a groundbreaking weekend of films, plays, exhibitions and seminars about homosexuality, a subject that has long been taboo in China. Participants were to include noted academic researchers, actors, filmmakers and artists, as well as activists for sexual rights and health, specifically HIV/AIDS.

The event was originally booked to take place at the “798 Factory” art colony in the Dashanzi area of Beijing. But on Wednesday, December 14, two days before the opening, the Beijing Public Security Bureau banned the organizers from using the “798 Factory” area. The organizing committee, some of whose members reported police surveillance, decided to move the festival to a private establishment, the On/Off bar. About 3 p.m. on Friday, just before the start of activities, around a dozen uniformed police, accompanied by plainclothesmen, raided the bar and shut down the event.

According to the event’s organizers, police ripped down signs, decorations and posters. They filmed the raid and festival attendees, and ordered the bar closed for a week.

“This raid is part of a pattern of censorship and harassment of Chinese activists working for sexual rights and health,” said Joanne Csete, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. “The Chinese government tells the world that it is dealing with HIV/AIDS in internationally acceptable ways, but continues to persecute civil society organizations that can lead the way to effective programs.”

As Human Rights Watch documented in its June 2005 report, "Restrictions on AIDS Activists in China Chinese authorities have shut down websites offering information to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Nongovernmental organizations serving and advocating for people living with HIV/AIDS have been harassed, hampered or forced to close. As many as hundreds of thousands of rural villagers in Henan province may have been infected through faulty blood collection practices in government-backed clinics. In Henan, young activists who started an AIDS orphanage have been beaten and jailed, and many people living with HIV/AIDS who have sought medical care or assistance for their children have been harassed and incarcerated.

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