BEIJING Two elderly Chinese women who applied to hold a protest during the Olympics were ordered to spend a year in a labor camp, a relative said Wednesday. Police later squelched a pro-Tibet demonstration.
The women were still at home three days after being officially notified they would have to serve a yearlong term of re-education through labor but were under surveillance by a government-backed neighborhood group, said Li Xuehui, the son of one of the women.
Li said no cause was given for the order to imprison his 79-year-old mother, Wu Dianyuan, and her neighbor Wang Xiuying, 77.
"Wang Xiuying is almost blind and disabled. What sort of re-education through labor can she serve?" Li said in a telephone interview. "But they can also be taken away at any time."
The elderly women, Wu and Wang, make unlikely activists. Wang, who used to sell ice cream, walks with a wooden cane, one hand holding onto Wu for support. But Li said they have been fighting since being kicked out of their Beijing homes in 2001 to make way for redevelopment.
Meanwhile, swarms of plainclothes police set upon four foreign activists early Thursday as they tried to stage a protest against Chinese rule over Tibet the latest in a series of unsanctioned demonstrations to occur during the Olympics.
Beijing said it would allow protests in three parks far from the Olympic venues during the Games but they had to be approved in advance. Of the some 77 applications lodged so far, none has been approved, and rights groups have called the zones a charade.
The four unfurled a Tibetan flag and shouted "Free Tibet" south of the "Bird's Nest" National Stadium, the New York-based Students for a Free Tibet said.
It put the number of police at 50; a spokeswoman for the Beijing Public Security Bureau declined comment.
"The fact that there were so many undercover police following them it just made them go with the action urgently," said Kate Woznow, the group's campaigns director.
Two Associated Press photographers were roughed up by plainclothes security officers, forced into cars and taken to a nearby building where they were questioned before being released. Memory cards from their cameras were confiscated. The four activists whose whereabouts were not known were identified by Students for a Free Tibet as Tibetan-German Florien Norbu Gyanatshang, 30; Mandie McKeown, 41, of Britain; and Americans Jeremy Wells, 38 and John Watterberg, 30.
The rough treatment and intimidation being meted out to foreigners and elderly Chinese underscore the authorities' determination to prevent any protests during the Olympics, even though Beijing Olympic organizers last month said demonstrations would be allowed in designated areas.
In the case of the two elderly women, Wu and Wang, they complained to district officials, then to city authorities, and finally demonstrated 16 times this year in two of Beijing's most sensitive areas Tiananmen Square and Zhongnanhai, the compound where China's leaders live and work.
After Beijing announced the Olympic protest zones, Wu and Wang applied repeatedly for a permit but failed to get one.
The cases of Wu and Wang "show that while China has now proven it is able to host international events to perfection, it still has a long way to go before it respects even minimal international human rights standards," said Nicholas Bequelin of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
"China is riding roughshod over its promises to allow lawful protests during the games," he said.
The re-education system, in place since 1957, allows police to sidestep the need for a criminal trial or a formal charge and directly send people to prison for up to four years to perform penal labor.
Giselle Davies, spokeswoman for the International Olympic Committee, said past Olympic hosts have designated protest areas and that the body hoped Beijing would stick to its promise of allowing demonstrations.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang declined to discuss the specifics of the protest policy at a regular news conference Wednesday. "In China, like in other countries, to apply for a demonstration, you have to obey the law," he said.
Tibet supporters have been among the most dogged groups trying to break Beijing's apparent ban on protests.
Five American bloggers writing about Tibet have been detained since early Tuesday in Beijing, said Students for a Free Tibet.
Also Tuesday, another five Americans who unfurled a "Free Tibet" banner near an Olympics venue were detained along with U.S. graffiti artist James Powderly, who planned to use laser beams to flash a similar message on buildings in Beijing, said Woznow. Powderly was still in detention, though the others have been released, she said.