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Activists protest at Olympic equestrian event

Aug. 09, 2008, 1:06 p.m. (ET)

HONG KONG (AP) Protesters displayed the Tibetan flag and chanted pro-democracy slogans at an Olympic equestrian event in Hong Kong on Saturday, but were removed and banned from the venue.

Two American activists from the New York-based Students for a Free Tibet unfurled the Tibetan flag among the spectators at the equestrian stadium in Hong Kong's suburban Sha Tin district.

Earlier in the day, Hong Kong university student Christina Chan and another protester tried to unveil a Tibetan flag that was concealed behind a Canadian flag but security officers covered them with a piece of cloth before it was fully exposed.

Radical opposition lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung and a fellow activist held up a piece of paper that said "No dictatorship" and chanted "End one-party rule," referring to the Chinese Communist Party's monopoly on power.

A Students for a Free Tibet statement identified the Americans as Matthew Browner-Hamlin from Anchorage, Alaska and Brianna Cayo Cotter from San Francisco, California.

Security officers removed all six protesters. Leung, Chan and their two fellow demonstrators have been banned from the remaining equestrian competitions, event spokesman Mark Pinkstone said.

In a phone conversation with The Associated Press, Browner-Hamlin said he had not been informed if he had Cotter were also banned. Security officers and Pinkstone did not immediately return a reporter's calls seeking comment on the Americans.

Organizers said they violated rules that ban political propaganda and the flags of countries not represented at the competition.

TV footage also showed a man wearing a T-shirt saying "Democracy and human rights are more important than the Olympics." He was asked to remove the shirt before entering the venue.

Several other protesters demanding China abolish the death penalty held a banner near the venue that said "Stop executions."

After Chan's removal from the stadium, the chief executive of the equestrian event lashed out at the student for disrupting the competition, calling her actions "very irresponsible."

"The Olympics happen once every four years. All the athletes prepare very hard for the competition. The audience watch the competition knowing it's a rare occasion. And she deliberately takes actions that violate the rules and disturbed other people," Lam Woon-kwong said.

Chan said she only wanted to protest peacefully and raise awareness that China had failed to keep its promise to improve its human rights record after winning the bid to host the Olympics.

Browner-Hamlin called his protest "an action that amplifies the voices of Tibetans who want to live under the Tibetan flag in a free nation."

Equestrian host Hong Kong is usually more tolerant of dissent than mainland China.

A former British colony now ruled by China, Hong Kong is promised Western-style civil liberties commonly denied on the mainland, such as freedom of speech and protest. Still, the local government has apparently tightened controls because of the Olympics.

An opposition lawmaker said three U.S.-based ethnic Chinese democracy activists were turned away at the airport Wednesday.

Tibet has been an extremely sensitive topic since protests against Chinese rule turned violent in the region's capital in March.

Many Tibetans insist they were an independent nation before Communist troops invaded in 1950, while Beijing says the Himalayan region has been part of its territory for centuries.