From The Denver Post
By Bruce Finley
A Buddhist tattoo artist from Boulder expelled from China with three others after unfurling pro-Tibet banners from atop light poles outside China’s showpiece Olympic stadium said authorities questioned them for 10 hours, threatened them with jail and wouldn’t let them call the U.S. Embassy.
Rotating teams of interrogators at a makeshift police station on a gated technical college campus quizzed the activists about Chinese who aided them on their mission, Phillip Bartell said in an interview today after arriving in San Francisco.
The police questioned the four activists separately seeking details on locals, including those who rented them an apartment and ferried them around, Bartell said, adding that he and others tried to protect the Chinese they’d met, even when told they could face five days in jail.
“I said, ‘I would really like to speak with my embassy.’ They refused. They said, ‘You answer our questions, and maybe we will let you talk to your embassy.’ ”
Eventually Bartell, 34; Tirian Mink, 32, of Portland, Ore; and two British activists were released unharmed at Beijing’s airport, where authorities had them pay for their own tickets home and put them on planes. Bartell and Mink were flown to Los Angeles, while Iain Thom, 24, and Lucy Fairbrother, 23, were sent via Frankfurt to London — and greeted with cheers.
“I expected a lot harsher treatment,” Bartell said. “They’re on their best behavior around the Games.”
His account clashed with Beijing Olympics spokesman Sun Weide’s assertion to the Associated Press in China on Wednesday that the pro-Tibet demonstrators were not detained.
Chinese officials on Thursday defended their actions.
“What they were doing broke Chinese law, so it’s quite understandable that the authorities threw them out,” said Defa Tong, spokesman at China’s consulate in San Francisco.
While he declined comment on whether foreign detainees should have access to embassies, Tong said the questioning is normal. “You break the law, the police can ask a few questions.”
Three protest venues have been set up in Beijing, Tong said. “If (visitors) have any views, they can go there.”
U.S. officials said Chinese authorities notified them after the activists were deported.
“The United States strongly supports the internationally recognized right to freedom of expression,” State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper said. “We call on China to use the opportunity of the Olympics to demonstrate greater openness and tolerance and to respect the fundamental and universally recognized right of all persons to peacefully express their views.”
President Bush upon arrival in Asia this week has challenged China’s approach to human rights and limits on freedom of epxression.
A practicing Buddhist who owns Rising Tide Tattoo in Boulder, Bartell said he was fine except for rope scrapes from shimmying using stirrups up the 120-foot light pole — a feat he practiced on trees and poles in Colorado. He flew to China a week ago on a tourist visa with the aim of protesting China’s domination of Tibet.
Chinese police who surrounded them by the stadium “took us in a car” to a security station, he said. “It was a technical college we went to that they had converted into a temporary police station.”
Police put the protesters in separate rooms, where they faced teams of three or four interrogators, who came and went handling paperwork, returning to ask more questions, Bartell said.
“They asked, ‘When did you first come to China?’ I told them. Then we got more into details, and we got into the Tibet issue a little bit. They wanted to know, ‘Why do we do this to China now, at this time?’ I told them this is our opinion, and in our country, we are allowed to express our opinions in this way, and we wanted to bring the Tibet issue to the Beijing Olympics, and this is our way of doing it. They got a little annoyed at that.”
Sometimes, the police turned friendly, he said. “They’ve been shown a side of Tibet all along that they believe in their hearts. We, the activists, have been shown another side.”
Atop the light poles, Bartell and crew unfurled 140-square-foot banners that said “Tibet Will Be Free” and other slogans in English with Chinese translations. This was the first protest at an Olympic site, one of a handful of protests. China’s showpiece Bird’s Nest national stadium is where opening ceremonies are to begin Friday, with Bush among the world leaders attending.
Unrest in Tibet led to demonstrations in March that turned violent when security forces cracked down.
Foreigners who protest China’s human-rights policies normally face deportation. Chinese who demonstrate face detention, hours of questioning by police and sometimes harsher treatment.
Bartell said he visited Tibet in 2005. His wife, Kirsten Westby, a board member for the group Students For a Free Tibet, helped unfurl a pro-Tibet banner last year at the base of Mount Everest — for which she too was detained.
The point is to challenge China’s government, Bartell said. “The reason we did it is because China’s government is using the Olympic Games as a vehicle to take control of the issue of Tibet and sweep in under the carpet and erase it from peoples’ minds. They don’t want to deal with Tibet at all. It’s an occupied country, illegally taken.”
Students For a Free Tibet feel a connection to Tibetans, he said. “I feel like I have no choice but to stand up. Politically, there’s only so much our country and other countries can do.”
Chinese people “are in large part victims,” Bartell said. “They’re just as subjugated as a lot of the minority groups” such as Tibetans.
The day before he scaled the light pole, he watched a handful of “incredibly brave” Chinese citizens unfurl a banner of their own in Tiananmen Square, he said.
“They gave me a lot of courage.”