2 Elderly Chinese Women Sentenced to Year in Labor Camp for Applying to Protest Loss of Homes

Two elderly Chinese women who applied during the Olympic Games to protest the loss of their homes have been ordered to spend a year in a labor camp, a relative said, while police squelched a pro-Tibet demonstration early Thursday.

The women were still at home three days after being officially notified they would have to serve a yearlong term of reeducation through labor, but were under surveillance by a neighborhood watch group, said Li Xuehui, the son of one of the women.

A rights group said the threat of prison appeared to be an intimidation tactic.

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 reeducation through labor can she serve?" Li said in a telephone interview. "But they can also be taken away at any time."

The Public Security Bureau had no immediate comment. A spokeswoman for the Beijing reeducation through labor bureau said, "We have no records of these two names in our system."

Early Thursday, swarms of plainclothes police took away four foreign activists protesting Chinese rule over Tibet — the latest in a series of such demonstrations during the Olympics.

The four unfurled a Tibetan flag and shouted "Free Tibet" south of the 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 disruption during the Olympics, even though the games' organizers last month said demonstrations would be allowed in designated areas.

But the games have provided a tempting spotlight to several protesters.

The elderly women, Wu and Wang, have repeatedly tried to apply for permission to hold a protest at one of three areas designated by the government as available for demonstrations during the games, which end Sunday.

Beijing has used the existence of the protest areas as a way to defend its promise to improve human rights in China that was crucial to its bid to win the games.

Some 77 applications were lodged to hold protests, none went ahead. Rights groups say the zones were just a way for the Chinese government to put on an appearance of complying with international standards. A handful who sought a permit to demonstrate was taken away by security officials, rights groups said.

"China is riding roughshod over its promises to allow lawful protests during the games," said Nicholas Bequelin of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

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," he said.

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.

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.

Critics say it is misused to detain political or religious activists, and violates suspects' rights.

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.

Meanwhile, 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.