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US watchdog issues warning on athletes' safety at China Olympics
US watchdog issues warning on athletes' safety at China Olympics

US watchdog issues warning on athletes' safety at China Olympics

A US rights monitor raised the alarm Monday over athletes' safety at China's upcoming Winter Olympics, after the host authorities threatened "punishment" for anti-Beijing comments.

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The Congressional-Executive Commission on China -- a group of Washington lawmakers and White House officials -- asked US Olympics authorities for an "urgent effort" to protect their sports stars' free speech rights at the February 4-20 tournament.

The commission spoke out after Yang Shu, a senior official in the Beijing organizing committee, told an online briefing on January 18 that "any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment."

"While we hope no Olympians face punishment for exercising their freedom of speech, given Yang Shu's statement and the Chinese government's documented behavior, we urge the USOPC to be vigilant and prepared to defend any Olympians who speak out," the commission said in a letter to the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee seen by AFP.

The United States, Australia, Canada and Britain announced in December that they would not be sending any official representatives to Beijing, citing the alleged genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghur population, a minority Muslim group in the Xinjiang region.

The countries said their athletes would still participate, but China nevertheless responded angrily, warning Western nations that they would "pay the price" for the protest.

Advocacy groups have backed the boycott, with Human Rights Watch (HRW) China director Sophie Richardson calling it a "crucial step toward challenging the Chinese government's crimes against humanity targeting Uyghurs and other Turkic communities."

Campaigners say that at least one million Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated in "re-education camps" in Xinjiang, where China is also accused of forcibly sterilizing women and imposing forced labor.

Beijing has defended the camps as vocational training centers aimed at reducing the appeal of Islamic extremism.

The commission, led by Oregan's Senator Jeff Merkley and Massachusetts Congressman James McGovern, also voiced concerns over Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who went missing after making sexual assault allegations against a top Communist Party official.

She was seen later on state media for appearances that the international community suspected may have been staged.

New York-based HRW awarded China a "gold medal for censorship" last week, in a statement accusing the Asian giant of trying to "sportswash" its "abysmal human rights record."

"Athletes participating in the games will be surveilled, and their rights to free speech and protest severely curtailed," said Director of Global Initiatives Minky Worden.