Thursday, August 28, 2008

2 men with Philly ties recall harsh Olympic venue: Prison

By KITTY CAPARELLA - Brian Conley and Jeffrey Rae documented only one pro-Tibetan protest during the Olympics in Beijing.

But the two Philadelphia-area men came back with an eye-opening look inside a Chinese prison, where they were interrogated for six days before being deported Sunday.

Conley, 28, of South Philadelphia, co-founder of Small World News, which produces two Web sites, and his friend Jeffrey Rae, 28, a Wayne native who works for a labor union in New York City, were among 13 Americans detained in three incidents this month in connection with protests organized by Students for a Free Tibet.

"This experience was way different from anything I've ever had before," Rae said. "The price we paid was minimum compared to a Chinese man sentenced to two years of hard labor for practicing his religion."

Detained separately, Rae and Conley met Sunday at the Beijing Airport, where they were forced to buy $2,000 tickets on Air China to Los Angeles, even though they already had booked return flights.

"I was told point-blank we were detained longer" than the protesters who were deported within 15 hours, "because we were more dangerous and more offensive - even though we were doing media work," said Conley, a videographer.

The two pals had covered students unfurling a "Free Tibet" banner on a pedestrian bridge above an intersection at Ethnic Minority Park, near the Olympic Stadium.

Other protesters interlocked their bikes to prevent passers-by from entering the park, and unfurled another banner: "Tibetans are Dying for Freedom."

Their work was posted on a Students for a Free Tibet Web site.

About 1 a.m. Aug. 19, Rae said, he and others were leaving a restaurant when "a sea of cops" with video cameras suddenly came down the street and arrested them.

Rae said he was taken to the "unmarked" Hainan Hotel, where he was interrogated for 22 straight hours. He said he repeatedly had been asked: "Who sent you?" and "Why are you here?"

Meanwhile, Conley, who was feeling sick, had stayed at the Hotel Bo Tai - near where Rae was being detained - when a knock on the door awoke him.

Police told him they were conducting a routine investigation about Chinese threatening tourists - the first of many misstatements - and asked him to go with them, Conley said.

Sitting in the rear of an unmarked car, Conley said, police were putting Rae's and his belongings in the trunk. Conley said he was taken to a fancy hotel-restaurant.

After 22 hours, the two men were taken to the Chong Wen Detention Center and held separately in a 12-by-30-foot room with 10 to 12 others.

Each inmate was assigned a wooden bed, with a drawer underneath, and all the beds were pushed together, like a platform, on one side of the room.

Rae said he was given a "blanket reeking of urine, a dirty Tupperware-like bowl and filthy spoon, in which rice and vegetables were dumped. Drinking water was available for only 15 minutes early in the morning - if you could find a bottle. Otherwise you won't have water that day," he added.

To wash dishes, inmates showed him how to use a little toothpaste with water and shake it up in a bottle.

For seven hours at a time, Rae said, he was interrogated in a metal chair with a high back and a metal bar on his lap, with bars in front of him, as if he was in a cage. Seven cops threw questions at him.

Rae told them the truth: He was a photojournalist documenting pro-Tibetan protests.

Police said "what we were doing was far more egregious because we were trying to split Tibet from the motherland and send images around the world," Rae said.

"What I'm doing is not against the law," Rae told them. He cited China's agreement with the International Olympic Committee to allow protests, and journalists to cover them, but it didn't matter.

He refused to give police the passwords to his laptop or cell phone, though he had backed up his images on memory cards.

Then came the threats:

"We don't know what to do with you, either shoot you or slit your throat," he was warned.

"Are you afraid of me?"

"No," he replied.

"Are you afraid of Osama bin Laden?"

"Maybe George Bush is, but I'm not," he said.

"The way the conversation was going was absurd," Rae said.

Asked if he had been beaten, he said he was repeatedly slapped on the shoulders. "After you're up for 36 hours straight, pushing is magnified a bit," Rae said. "They were extremely angry with us."

Meantime, at the recommendation of Students for a Free Tibet, Conley claimed he was a tourist and listed what he had videotaped: the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Dirt Market.

He contended that he was just visiting, noticed the protesters and filmed them.

"I stonewalled them,"Conley said.

At one point, he text-messaged his pregnant wife, Eowyn Rieke, a physician: "In jail. All fine."

Later, he e-mailed his and other Twitter social-networking accounts.

Two inmates stayed up all night to watch the other inmates, and the pair were rewarded with little things by the guards. In the evenings, inmates were allowed to watch only one program, usually table tennis, on CCTV, the Chinese network.

Through a surveillance camera and loudspeaker, guards kept watch on the TV-watching inmates, who all had to sit upright in chairs next to each other. If someone slumped, the TV was shut off, Rae said.

For exercise, they had to walk in circles around the room all at the same time, Rae said.

Most foreigners were jailed for alleged visa problems, but one 22-year-old Chinese man confided that he had been sentenced to two years of hard labor for practicing Falun Gong, a religion banned in China.

"My people are tortured when they go to labor camps," he said. "I'm really scared."

Two days later, he was moved.

Rae realized that the U.S. Embassy must have been taking some action when his interrogators complained that he and other protesters were causing problems between their countries.

Conley, meantime, was suffering from asthma problems for several days, until finally a doctor brought him an inhaler he had been requesting.

Before they were taken to the airport, Conley and Rae had to sign and fingerprint each page of an apology. It was one of several documents, written in Chinese, that they were forced to sign after each interrogation.

The Chinese wanted to "save face," Rae said.

But Conley nearly blew it at the airport when they were being videotaped and he gave the cops the finger. They rushed him, knocking his glasses across the room.

Conley then joined the others for their flight. *

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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