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Activists Step Up Criticism of China, One Year Before Beijing Olympics

With one year to go before Beijing hosts the 2008 Olympic games, activists are taking advantage of the growing international attention on the Beijing Olympics to highlight a range of issues, from human rights abuses in China to its perceived closeness to the government of Sudan. VOA's Stephanie Ho reports from Washington.

China has said it does not want next year's Beijing Olympics to be manipulated by politics. That warning has not stopped international activists, who are marking the one year countdown with a host of activities, including a bike ride protest in New York City Tuesday. The event's sponsor, the group Reporters Without Borders, is sharply critical of China's human rights record and repression of free speech.

Bike ride captain Mark Davis says the riders are carrying large, eye-catching billboards that say "Beijing 2008" and show the five interlocking Olympic rings as handcuffs. "In New York, everyone has seen everything. So, we need to come and do things differently," he said.

Chinese authorities briefly detained more than ten foreign journalists Monday, following a rare protest in Beijing by officials of Reporters Without Borders.

The London-based human rights group Amnesty International issued a report Tuesday, urging China to live up to promises it made several years ago when it bid to host the 2008 Olympics. It told the International Olympic Committee it would improve its human rights record.

"China did a very interesting thing. When they were bidding, they promised that if they win (are named host of) the Olympics, they will improve human rights. Three senior officials repeatedly mentioned the commitment that they will improve human rights. So, in a nutshell, China linked human rights to Olympics," said Amnesty's T. Kumar. He said his organization is focusing on areas where it believes China can make what he called "meaningful" and "achievable" human rights improvements.

Amnesty is urging China to abolish the re-education through labor system, and extend media freedom to all journalists, foreign and domestic. The group is also calling on Beijing to release people who have been imprisoned for human rights reasons.

Kumar says his group also wants China to reduce the number of criminal violations that are eligible for the death penalty. He said China is responsible for 80 percent of the world's executions. "So, China is already a champion in executions. So, if you want to give a gold medal, give China a gold medal for executions and human rights abuses."

Some activists are also trying to use the world's interest in the Beijing Olympics to focus attention on China's relations with countries that have questionable human rights records.

Backers of a campaign called "Olympic Dream for Darfur" are organizing their own torch relay race, which will be launched by American actress and U.N. Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow. It starts this week, near the war-torn Darfur region in western Sudan, and is set to end in Hong Kong in December.

A spokesman for Olympic Dream for Darfur, Matt Chandler, says his group believes China should use its economic and political ties with Sudan to do more to end the violence in Darfur. "The "One World, One Dream" theme of the Beijing Olympics will certainly seem perversely ironic if images of the dead and dying in Darfur are juxtaposed with the games," he said.

For four years, ethnic African rebels in Darfur have been fighting government-backed Arab janjaweed militias. The janjaweed have been accused of terrorizing villagers and committing atrocities including murder and rape. More than 200,000 people have died in the conflict. More than two million others have been driven from their homes.

China is Sudan's largest foreign investor and has blocked harsh U.N. action against Khartoum.