(San Francisco) - San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom should use the Olympic torch’s passage through San Francisco on Wednesday, April 9 to defend the freedom of expression and assembly and to highlight ongoing abuses in China linked to the Beijing Games, Human Rights Watch said today.

San Francisco is the only North American city through which the Olympic torch will pass. Despite the ongoing crackdown in Tibet, recent jailing of leading human rights advocates in China, and other abuses that are taking place as a result of the 2008 Games in Beijing, the mayor continues to call hosting the relay an “extraordinary honor” and insists hosting the flame is about sports, not politics.

For months, activists have called on officials in San Francisco to release information about the route of the torch relay so that they could plan protests. Initially they were told by the Mayor’s Office and other city officials that the route had yet to be determined by the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (BOCOG), and the City of San Francisco could not yet release information about the route. Protests, they were told, would be limited to designated “free-speech zones.” On April 1, after being pressured by the ACLU of Northern California and Human Rights Watch, the city finally released details of the torch route and the mayor publicly assured protesters they would have access along the entire route.

“The City of San Francisco has finally reversed course to be more transparent about Olympic torch relay details,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, who will be in the Bay Area this week. “Now is the moment for the mayor and other leading San Francisco officials to also find a public voice about ongoing human right violations in China today.”

Tibet activists have been protesting outside San Francisco City Hall since the crackdown in Tibetan areas began in mid-March. On April 7, three members of Students for a Free Tibet scaled the Golden Gate Bridge to unfurl banners. The torch relay has ignited similar protests in previous host cities, including Athens, London, and Paris. The Olympic torch was scheduled to tour 21 nations; the next slated city stops are Buenos Aires and Dar es Salaam.

Human Rights Watch has called for the Olympic torch not to go through the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, as scheduled on June 20-21 unless the Chinese government agrees to an independent investigation into its repression of protests there in March 2008.

Over the past year, Human Rights Watch has documented numerous abuses in China tied to Beijing’s hosting of the 2008 Summer Games, including media and internet censorship, extrajudicial house arrests and sentences on charges of state subversion of government critics, abuses of migrant construction workers, forced evictions, and the ongoing crackdown on protests in Tibet. Last week, leading human rights advocate Hu Jia was given a three-and-a-half-year sentence for criticizing the Chinese government in the context of the Games. Previously, Yang Chunlin received a five-year sentence for having begun a petition titled, “We want human rights, not the Olympics.”

“One goal of awarding China the Olympics was to improve human rights in China and Beijing’s adherence to international standards,” said Roth. “As the Olympic torch relay makes its way around the world, leaders should not be emulating the Chinese government in its opposition to peaceful dissent and protests.”

Human Rights Watch does not support a boycott of the Olympics, but rather urges the Chinese government to fulfill its human rights commitments, particularly those made in order to win the right to host these Games. Human Rights Watch also urges protestors not to use any form of violence in expressing their views and security officials to exercise restraint.