Swiss limit Tibetan protest against visit by Chinese president

China's Xi Jinping.

China's Xi Jinping. Commons

By John Miller | Reuters

ZURICH, Switzerland, 13 January 2017

Swiss authorities say a planned protest by pro-Tibetan groups against Xi Jinping must end before his arrival in Bern on Sunday, in a bid to avoid the kind of confrontation that marked the last visit by a Chinese president 18 years ago.

Members of Switzerland’s Tibetan community and supporters can demonstrate for two hours before noon on Sunday in the capital’s city centre, Bern municipal security director Reto Nause said on Friday.

Xi flies into Zurich at noon on Sunday and is due to arrive later in the Swiss capital for a gala dinner. He will hold talks with Swiss officials on Monday and on Tuesday will go to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos.

In 1999, demonstrators took to roofs overlooking the Swiss parliament with banners demanding “Free Tibet” during a visit by China’s then-President Jiang Zemin.

Police intervened when people tried to throw eggs at the Chinese delegation. Jiang questioned Swiss leaders’ control over their country and remarked that they risked “losing a good friend”.

This time, the area around the Swiss parliament building will be closed off from Sunday morning to Monday afternoon.

Nause said the Tibetan community had agreed to limit the protest’s duration and to its location in a square about three blocks from parliament. He said a balance had been struck between the protesters’ interests and the security concerns of the Chinese visitors.

“I expect that members of the community will stick to this agreement, which we reached after intense but constructive dialogue,” Nause told Reuters.

Speaking to Swiss state broadcaster SRF, he said police would also be alert to potential disruptions by pro-China activists.

Messages left with Tibetan community leaders in Switzerland on Friday were not immediately returned.

Free speech

“Berne’s decision to only allow a demonstration away from the view of the Chinese delegation must be viewed as a critical restriction on free speech and assembly rights,” Amnesty International said in a statement.

After a failed uprising against Chinese rule nearly six decades ago, tens of thousands of Tibetans including spiritual leader the Dalai Lama fled into exile in neighbouring India and other countries. Switzerland’s 6,500-strong Tibetan community is one of Europe’s largest.

During a visit to Switzerland in October, the Dalai Lama urged Tibetans to keeping fighting from abroad for more autonomy for Tibet within China.

Beijing vigorously condemns foreign leaders who meet the “splittist” Dalai Lama. Trips abroad by Chinese leaders are often met with pro-Tibet protests, attempts by police to keep them away from the visiting delegation and pro-China counter-protests.

China and Switzerland forged a free trade agreement in 2014 and Swiss companies count China among their most important markets.

Xi is the first Chinese president to attend the WEF. Chinese officials have said he plans to promote “inclusive globalisation” and warn that populist approaches can lead to war and poverty.

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