Olympic torch protesters denied entry to Hong Kong

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong’s decision to bar three human rights activists who planned to protest against rights violations in China during the Olympic torch relay in the city on May 2, was criticized on Sunday by a pro-democracy group.

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The three, including Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot, arrived on Saturday from Denmark and were questioned by immigration officials for nearly six hours before being escorted by armed police onto a London-bound flight, a cameraman traveling with the three told Reuters.

“I was shocked and disappointed because we spent a lot of time and money planning this project,” said Niels Madsen who was allowed into Hong Kong.

“We felt if we weren’t interfering directly with the torch there would be no problem, we were only here to do make some peaceful activities,” Madsen told Reuters.

The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China which holds a candlelight vigil every year on June 4 to commemorate victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing, criticized the government for bowing to pressure from China in barring the trio from entering.

Hong Kong Security Chief Ambrose Lee has said people can demonstrate peacefully during the relay as long as they exercise restraint. But he recently hardened his line, saying Tibetan separatists wouldn’t be welcome in the territory.

An Immigration Department spokesman said only that it had a duty to “uphold effective immigration controls”, the South China Morning Post newspaper reported.

The Olympic flame is due to arrive in Hong Kong on Wednesday ahead of its torch relay on Friday, the torch’s first leg on Chinese soil after its current world tour.

Hong Kong was returned to China from Britain in 1997 amid promises of a high degree of autonomy. Despite its reputation as a free and open Asian transport hub, authorities have in the past blacklisted individuals including Falungong members from entering the territory at sensitive times.

“We told ourselves that Hong Kong is a kind of democratic free island in China, and now it seems a bit different,” said Madsen.

Galschiot is the Danish sculptor of the Pillar of Shame at Hong Kong University, a writhing mass of human figures which marks the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing.

The torch relay ahead of the Beijing Games in August has put China’s domestic and foreign policies under the spotlight and prompted protests against its rights record as well as patriotic rallies by Chinese who criticize the West for vilifying Beijing.

Reporting by Anne Marie Roantree and James Pomfret; Editing by David Fogarty