Protesters Disrupt Olympic Torch-lighting Ceremony in Greece, Drawing Attention to Chinese Human-rights Abuses

Tibetan and Hong Kong human-rights activists staged a series of protests around the torch-lighting ceremony in Greece in the run-up to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Greek authorities detained nine activists; six have been released, while three others remain in detention awaiting their court hearings. The protests drew attention to the CCP’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, and highlighted the campaign seeking to garner international support for boycotting the Beijing Olympics. The detentions and arrests pointed to China’s growing influence abroad and commensurate capabilities to silence dissent, even beyond its own borders.

The first protest occurred on Sunday at the Acropolis in Athens. Nicholas Paphitis from the Associated Press described the ten-minute incident, in which two activists climbed onto scaffolding by the Acropolis stairs to brandish flags and shout slogans

The women, 18-year-old Tibetan student Tsela Zoksang and 22-year-old exiled Hong Kong activist Joey Siu, both American citizens, are members of the “No Beijing 2022” campaign, the New York-based organization Students for a Free Tibet said.

A security officer took the banner away, but the activists remained on the scaffolding and deployed a Tibetan flag and a smaller banner proclaiming, “Free Hong Kong Revolution.” They also chanted slogans including “Free Tibet,” “Boycott Beijing 2022” and “No freedom, no Games,” before police arrived and detained them.

Protests are not allowed on the Acropolis — which has not stopped several from being held over the years by groups ranging from Communist unionists to soccer fans. [Source]

The non-governmental organization Students for a Free Tibet published statements by the two activists

Tsela Zoksang, an 18-year-old Tibetan-American activist with Students for a Free Tibet, said: “The IOC’s decision to award the Winter Olympics to China is a clear endorsement of the Chinese Communist Party’s extreme and brutal human rights abuses towards Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Hongkongers. Tibetans in Tibet, my people, live in daily fear under China’s brutal and illegal occupation; facing arrest and torture for simply calling for basic rights and freedoms. The IOC – Thomas Bach and Juan Samaranch – know full well what is happening but they have chosen money over human dignity.  So now it is time for the international community, and all people of conscience, to take a stand and boycott Beijing 2022; anything less will be a clear endorsement of China’s genocidal regime.”

Joey Siu, an exiled 22-year-old Hong Kong activist, said: “I am a Hong Kong activist and I cannot return to my homeland. Taking this nonviolent direct action today is bittersweet as in Hong Kong, if I protested in this way,  I would face unpredictable, lengthy jail time, or worse. As we shared our message today, my heart was with all my friends that are being unjustly persecuted in Hong Kong. By awarding the Chinese government the honor of hosting an Olympic Games yet again, the IOC is sending the world a message that it is ok to turn a blind eye to genocide and crimes against humanity in Hong Kong, Tibet, East Turkestan, and Southern Mongolia. We must stand together to oppose Beijing 2022.” [Source]

That same day, on the other side of the country, a dress rehearsal for the torch-lighting ceremony took place at the Temple of Hera in Ancient Olympia, where the first Olympic games were held, and where the Olympic torch begins its journey across the globe. The dress rehearsal coincided with the hundredth anniversary of the executive board of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). In a symbolic coincidence, the rain and clouds prevented the Olympic torch from being lit through a parabolic mirror, as is traditional. 

More protests occurred during the official ceremony at the temple on Monday. Due to pandemic-related restrictions, the limited audience included only the president and members of the International Olympic Committee, the Greek and Chinese Olympic committees, Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, and some media personnel. Seconds after the torch was lit, three activists emerged atop a nearby hill and shouted for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics, before being tackled to the ground by security guards. The NGO Free Tibet revealed that the three were Tibetan activist Chemi Lhamo, Free Tibet’s Jason Leith, and activist Fern MacDougal. Karolos Grohmann from Reuters described the activists’ intervention on the scene

Human rights activists unfurled a banner reading “No Genocide Games”, waved a Tibetan flag and called for a boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics during the torch-lighting ceremony on Monday.

Two women and a man sneaked past a tight police cordon and entered the archaeological site of the ancient Greek stadium and temple where the Olympic flame is traditionally lit and which had been sealed off for days.

They held up a Tibetan flag seconds after the torch was lit by an actress playing the role of high priestess at the Temple of Hera a few metres away. [Source]

Although the three activists did not halt the proceedings, their calls for a boycott were audible in the live audio-stream of the event: 

In a separate incident on Monday, four Tibetan activists were detained outside of the torch-lighting ceremony venue. Among the group, all of whom were U.S. or Swiss nationals, was Pema Doma, a campaign director for the NGO Students for a Free Tibet. In video messages recorded after her release, she claimed that they were in a public space giving media interviews when Chinese undercover police officers began taking photos of them. According to her account, the Chinese officers later returned with Greek authorities to detain the four Tibetan protesters—ignoring the white pro-Tibetan activists next to them—and proceeded to throw them in unmarked vehicles, forcibly search them, and strip them of their passports. 

Tsela Zoksang and Joey Siu have been released from detention and allowed to leave the country, providing they return to Greece for their court hearing in January 2022. The three activists who disrupted the ceremony on Monday are in detention and await their court hearing on Tuesday. The four activists who were detained while outside the ceremony on Monday have been released. 

The heavy-handed arrests have highlighted the Chinese government’s growing influence over Greece. In 2016, Chinese shipping giant COSCO bought a 51 percent stake in the Piraeus Port, one of the Mediterranean’s busiest ports and “the biggest project of the Belt and Road Initiative,” according to President Xi Jinping. Chinese economic investment has led to Greek support for certain issues of concern to China: at the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2017, Greece blocked an EU statement condemning China for its human rights record. In 2019, the two countries signed an extradition agreement, and there is some concern that current and future activists could be extradited from Greece to China under the terms of the agreement. By leveraging such agreements and exploiting Interpol, the Chinese government has previously forced hundreds of perceived dissidents back to China to face trial under China’s arbitrary legal system. Some observers have also raised questions about whether Greek authorities were collaborating with Chinese agents to detain the protesters: 

This week’s torch-lighting ceremony continues certain Olympic traditions, while other traditions have been discontinued. In March 2008, the year of the first Beijing Olympics, several Tibetan activists also tried unsuccessfully to interfere with the torch relay, but this year, there will be no torch relay in Greece. Perhaps in order to avoid further disruptions from protesters, the torch will be carried to the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens and then handed off to the Chinese delegation, which will fly it back to Beijing on Wednesday. The Beijing Winter Olympics will take place in February 2022, followed by the Paralympics in March. 

Linda Lew from the South China Morning Post noted that despite the activists’ failed attempts to derail the proceedings in Greece, their protests are an important step in raising awareness of the human rights abuses taking place in various parts of China:

US-based human rights scholar Teng Biao, a vocal critic of China hosting the Games, said that as far as he knew, the arrests were the first during months of protests against the Beijing Winter Olympics.

[…] “Protesters will not be cowed by the arrests,” he said. “In fact, it could motivate more to join in future demonstrations. We have several months before the Games and Beijing’s ruthless stance on these issues will drive more people to take action.”

[…] “Total or diplomatic boycotts of the Games are very important,” Teng said. “They lead to more people finding out what is happening in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the rest of China.” [Source]



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