Chinese police fired tear gas to disperse protests 
by Tibetan monks [AFP]
European politicians want China to clarify if they plan to place any restrictions on athletes discussing human rights during the Beijing Olympics.

The Council of Europe, the continent's foremost human rights organisation, will be holding a hearing in mid-April and will invite Chinese officials to explain what limits there might be.

"Freedom of speech is something we hold dear at the Council of Europe, and many athletes from our member states will be going to China,'' said Goeran Lindblad, who heads the council's political affairs department.

"We need to know if there will be any restrictions on what they can say, and why.''

Lindblad also criticised reports that some national Olympic committees had tried to restrict athletes' right to speak.

"The Olympic Charter restricts demonstrations of political 'propaganda' at the games, but requiring athletes to sign an explicit undertaking not to raise politically sensitive issues is unusual,'' his office said in a statement.

Zero interference

Meanwhile, the European Union's top sports official said there should be no interference from politicians on how athletes and national Olympic committees deal with human rights and free speech issues during the August 8-24 games.

"Everyone has a role to play. This is the International Olympic Committee's event,'' EU Sports Commissioner Jan Figel said in an interview.

IOC president Jacques Rogge has said his organization should not be pressuring China about its human rights record, arguing it is better to leave such issues to the politicians.

Figel largely backed the IOC stance.

"We, the Commission and the member states, we have to pursue a political dialogue. Human rights is part of the dialogue,'' he said.

But he insisted he would not influence anyone's handling of the issue.

"We respect the IOC and NOCs as partners. So it is up to them to decide where and what competition is organised,'' he said.

Pieter Van Den Hoogenband would like to see
leadership from the top [GALLO/GETTY]
Van den Hoogenband calls for statement

Three-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Pieter van den Hoogenband has said Rogge should speak out on human rights in China ahead of the games.

The Dutch swimmer said a public statement by Rogge would allow athletes to concentrate on their preparations for the games.

Last month, the country holding the EU's presidency came out against athletes raising human rights and other sensitive political issues during the Beijing Olympics.

Sports Minister Milan Zver of Slovenia said sport was too important to use for such issues.

Several officials believe multinational companies and politicians that trade and invest in China have more of an obligation to speak up rather than athletes.

Economic relations between the 27-nation EU and China are moving closer all the time.

Bilateral trade doubled between 2000-05 and reached $370 billion in 2006.

Europe is China's largest export market and China is Europe's prime source of imports.

Source: Agencies