August 7, 2008 / 4:48 AM / 10 years ago

UPDATE 1-Olympics-Athletes press China on Tibet - rights groups

(Adds letter from Chinese dissident, paragraphs 7-8)

BEIJING, Aug 7 (Reuters) - More than 40 athletes competing in the Beijing Olympics have urged China to peacefully settle contention over Tibet and protect freedom of religion and opinion, rights groups said, raising pressure on the Games host.

The Games participants are among 127 international athletes reported to have signed a petition to Chinese President Hu Jintao, bringing sports and human rights together in a way that Beijing has often rejected as “politicising” the Olympics.

The signatories ask Hu “to enable a peaceful solution for the issue of Tibet and other conflicts in your country with respect to fundamental principles of human rights”, according to the letter issued late on Wednesday by Sports for Peace, Amnesty International and the International Campaign for Tibet.

They also press Hu for “freedom of expression, freedom of religion and freedom of opinion in your country, including Tibet”, according to Sports for Peace’s German website (www.sportsforpeace.de).

The reported signatories include Cuba’s world record-holding hurdler Dayron Robles, a surprising gesture for an athlete from a Communist friend of China. Others include the U.S. 400 metre runner DeeDee Trotter and Croatian high jumper Blanka Vlasic.

Repeated calls to the petition organisers to verify the list were not answered, and Robles and other reported signatories could not be immediately contacted for checking.

The group Human Rights in China released a letter by jailed dissident He Depu to International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge denouncing rights abuses and inviting Rogge to visit the prison.

“Tens of thousands of prisoners in Beijing, each holding a bowl half full of boiled vegetables, are training their eyes upon you. How does this make you feel?” He wrote.

China wants the Olympics to be an unblemished celebration of national prosperity and harmony, but international protests over Tibet have shadowed the Games preparations and international torch relay.

Four foreign activists for an independent Tibet brought their cause to the Games’ doorstep on Wednesday by unfurling banners close to the main Bird’s Nest Stadium. And now the petition raises the possibility of athletes making gestures supporting Tibetan self-determination during the Games.

China claims followers of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled Buddhist leader, orchestrated riots and protests across the remote mountain region in March in a bid to spoil the Games that open on Friday.

The Dalai Lama has repeatedly rejected China’s claims and on Wednesday issued a letter welcoming the Games.

China occupied Tibet with Communist troops from 1950 and says Tibet has been an inseparable part of its state since ancient times. Critics say Chinese rule is threatening Tibet’s distinctive culture and society. (Reporting by Chris Buckley; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)

For more stories visit our multimedia website "Road to Beijing" here; and see our blog at blogs.reuters.com/china chris.buckley@reuters.com; +86-10-66271261

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