(New York) - The Chinese government and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) risk tarnishing the Olympic movement by holding the torch relay in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, Human Rights Watch said today. Lhasa, where the torch is due to arrive on June 21, has remained off-limits to foreign media and independent observers since protests began there in mid-March.

The protests, which started with peaceful demonstrations by Buddhist monks on March 10, became violent on March 14 after police began arresting monks and other Tibetan protesters. Some Tibetans then attacked Han Chinese shops and property, and police did nothing to stop this violence. The government sealed off Lhasa and suppressed any further unrest with a combination of mass troop deployment, arrests and detention of several hundred and possibly thousands of people, and extensive police surveillance of Tibetans in order to prevent further demonstrations. On March 18, the central government in Beijing claimed that “normalcy” had returned to Lhasa and that the city would be reopened to foreign visitors “soon.”

“The situation in Lhasa is anything but normal,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities continue to fear that Tibetans may try to stage further protests, and Tibetans continue to fear that they can be arrested at any time for any reason. Using Tibet for a propaganda opportunity such as the Olympic torch relay – while sealing it to independent investigators – is both unconscionable and reckless.”

In the wake of the March protests, the Chinese government has denied repeated demands for an independent international investigation into the protests and their aftermath. In response to international condemnation of the March violence, the Chinese government permitted 15 diplomats to visit Lhasa in late March, but seriously restricted their ability to speak freely to Tibetans, visit those in detention, or otherwise investigate aspects of the protests. In early April, a request from Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to visit Tibet was declined on the grounds that it was “inconvenient.” A separate appeal, issued jointly by six United Nations Special Rapporteurs for “full unhindered access,” was similarly declined. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is mandated to visit detention facilities and check on the well-being of prisoners worldwide, has never been allowed to carry out such work in China.

In addition, media access to Tibet has been dramatically curtailed. In another effort to blunt international criticism, the Chinese government has also permitted trips to Lhasa for foreign correspondents on March 26-27, April 9-10, and June 3-5. Yet these too were so tightly controlled that they failed to assuage concerns about the situation in Lhasa. Monks upstaged two of the visits by denouncing their lack of freedoms; on the most recent visit, Chinese residents gave the correspondents accounts of police shooting protesters in Lhasa.

Banning unrestricted access to international media and foreign visitors has only been one aspect of the wide-ranging measures deployed by the government to enforce an information blackout on Tibetan areas. Other measures identified by Human Rights Watch include the suppression of information from Tibetans about the recent events in Tibetan areas. Methods have entailed:

  • Using state security laws to prohibit reports of human rights violations as “damaging to national security”;
  • Systematically threatening to arrest residents passing information about the situation in their locality to relatives, friends, and/or foreign journalists; and
  • Arbitrarily arresting and detaining people, and releasing them conditionally on the basis of arbitrary fines and pledges not to speak about recent events.

In addition, Human Rights Watch has documented increasing restrictions on Tibetans’ movements through the:

  • Re-imposition of regulations stipulating that Tibetans must have a permit to travel out of the area in which they are registered to live, and using checkpoints to enforce the regulations;
  • Banning of all foreign visitors to Tibetan areas, including tourism groups;
  • Deployment of border troops to prevent Tibetans from fleeing to Nepal; and
  • Deployment of armed police to prevent access to monasteries where protests have taken place.

Restrictions on telecommunications have also been imposed through methods such as:

  • Systematically monitoring calls made by those inside Tibet, often at the telephone-exchange level, of international and domestic telecommunications, in order to prevent information being relayed;
  • Active blocking and censoring of internet and email discussions of Tibet;
  • Increased jamming of foreign radio broadcasts in Tibetan; and
  • Confiscation of mobile phones, cameras, fax machines, satellite TV receivers, and computers from monasteries by the police.

The Chinese authorities have also put under house arrest the prominent Beijing-based Tibetan writer Woeser and prevented Chinese lawyers from representing Tibetan protesters in legal proceedings.

Human Rights Watch said that it is legitimate for any government to act to restore public order and prosecute persons who engage in violence. However, numerous, credible reports received by Human Rights Watch about the scale and intensity of the repression in Tibet suggest that authorities have used the March protests as an opportunity to launch an indiscriminate crackdown on Tibetans’ rights. The authorities have deployed large numbers of security forces, systematically conflated violent protesters and peaceful demonstrators, and further intensified religious repression in Buddhist monasteries.

“What emerges is a picture of a crackdown on anything perceived as dissent and a largely successful attempt to suppress the flow of information to the outside world about events in Tibet,” said Richardson.

Despite these restrictions and the heightened tension in Lhasa, the Chinese government intends to have the Olympic torch pass through on June 21. The authorities have promised to “severely punish” and “give no indulgence” to Tibetans who would try to “sabotage” the torch relay. On June 1, armed police were redeployed in Lhasa, and several thousand additional troops are being deployed this week. On June 3, the government acknowledged the possibility of further unspecified “incidents” in Lhasa, and on June 16 abruptly postponed the date of the arrival of the torch, but refused to present a reason or to detail the timing of the route.

The IOC, which has remained silent publicly about the contentious aspects of the torch’s route, has gone so far as to circulate an internal memo to its members suggesting what they should say in the event of casualties during the Lhasa ceremonies, which is described in the document as a “particularly bold segment” of the torch relay.

“That the IOC is privately preparing for such an outcome indicates just how provocative the Lhasa torch relay could be,” said Richardson. “It is irresponsible for the Chinese government to deliberately send a torch into a powder keg, and the IOC and Olympic sponsors should ask Beijing to cancel this part of the relay.”

Human Rights Watch reiterated its March call that the torch relay should only proceed if an international independent investigation is also permitted access to Tibet, the ban on international media is lifted, and China pledges to respect the right to protest peacefully as guaranteed in international law.

Human Rights Watch has also urged top Olympic sponsors, particularly those who are sponsors of the Olympic torch relay – Coca-Cola, Lenovo, and Samsung – to use their leverage to help re-open Tibet to journalists and international investigators. To date, no corporate sponsor of the torch relay has responded to this appeal.

“If Tibet is open to the torch, it must also be open to an international investigation, the media, and anyone who wishes to know what actually happened in March,” said Richardson. “Using a propaganda-heavy event to conceal the truth about the crackdown in Tibet shows just how little regard the Chinese government has for the Olympic movement.”