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Beijing Olympics 7 April 2008

Reporters Without Borders stages major protests for Olympic torch relay in Paris despite massive police presence

Reporters Without Borders hails the extensive demonstrations in support of human rights and press freedom that were staged today in Paris as relay runners carried the Olympic torch around the city.

The press freedom organisation managed to unfurl gigantic flags with its Beijing 2008 campaign motif of the Olympic rings turned handcuffs in seven locations: the Eiffel Tower, Avenue Marceau, the Champs-Elysées, the Pont des Arts, the Quai Malaquais, the facade of the cathedral of Notre Dame and near the Charléty Stadium (headquarters of the National Olympic Committee).

“The support of the Parisian public was never lacking throughout the day and we thank the many people who responded to our appeals to show support for human rights and press freedom in China,” Reporters Without Borders said. “This turnout could not be taken for granted, given the excessive security measures to protect the torch relay and the fact that the police were told to act with extreme firmness.”

The organisation added: “The Chinese authorities will no longer be able to scorn the appeals for the release of political prisoners and a dialogue on Tibet. It now also falls to heads of state and government to take account of these protests by boycotting the Olympic Games opening ceremony on 8 August.”

The Olympic torch relay began under close police surveillance at the foot of the Eiffel Tower at about 12:30 pm. Thousands of Reporters Without Borders and pro-Tibet supporters were positioned along the route of the relay from the very start. Three mountain climbers unfurled the first of the Beijing 2008 campaign flags across the side of one of the Eiffel Tower’s base pillars as the relay got under way. Activists were arrested and manhandled. Firemen removed the climbers from their positions on the tower and the flag was taken down. They were released two hours later.

Tense policemen kept confiscating Reporters Without Borders flags and banners and copies of the daily newspaper Libération, which had “Free the Olympic Games” as its banner headline above a photo of the five Olympic rings turned into handcuffs. These scenes were repeated in many places including outside the headquarters of France Télévisions.

At one point, pro-Tibet activists succeeded in extinguishing the Olympic flame, forcing organisers to put it inside a bus.

Another of the gigantic Reporters Without Borders flags was hung from the third storey of a building on the Champs-Elysées, where a large crowd booed the Olympic torch as it passed. A similar flag was hung from a building on Avenue Marceau. Outside the Paris city hall, opponents of the Chinese regime outnumbered supporters of the Olympic Games.

Four Reporters Without Borders activists, including the organisation’s secretary-general, Robert Ménard, unfurled an 8 metres x 8 metres flag across the facade of Notre Dame cathedral. Demonstrators who had gathered in front of the cathedral chanted “Freedom in China, freedom in Tibet.”

French politicians also expressed their views. Speaking on behalf of the Socialist Party, parliamentarian Bruno Leroux said all non-violent protests were welcome. The head of the Modem party in Paris, Marielle de Sarnez, took part in the protests and called on the government to take a clear position on human rights.

Five people, including Mireille Ferri, the vice-president of the Ile-de-France regional government, and Green Party parliamentarian Sylvain Carel, were arrested during a series of incidents that began before the start of the relay. Around 40 parliamentarians from all the main parties demonstrated outside the National Assembly in support of human rights in Tibet. Here, the police also confiscated the Beijing 2008 campaign flags and Tibetan flags waved by people who joined the parliamentarians.

The Olympic torch did not leave the bus between the National Assembly and Charléty Stadium, where the relay finished. The symbol of the Olympics entered the stadium to more boos and whistles. Here, yet again, the police confiscated Reporters Without Borders flags and Tibetan flags, permitting people on the streets outside to have only Chinese flags, the officials logos of the games or those of their sponsors. Chinese government opponents who refused to surrender their flags were arrested and handcuffed.

Around 15 supporters of the British section of Reporters Without Borders demonstrated the day before during the Olympic torch relay in London. Wearing white masks and black T-shirts with the Olympic handcuffs, they unfurled the Beijing 2008 campaign flag at the intersection of Ladbroke Grove and Holland Park Avenue at midday.

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