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Spielberg quits as Beijing Olympics advisor

Cites Chinese involvement in Sudanese 'crimes against humanity'

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Steven Spielberg has quit as advisor to the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics in protest at the Chinese regime's backing of the Sudanese government, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The Sudanese authorities have been heavily critised for failing to tackle violence in the country's Darfur region, in which the government-backed Islamic janjaweed militia has systematically destroyed villages and killed civilians, displacing an estimated 2.5 million people. The fighting has caused between 200,000 and 400,000 fatalaties, according to the UN.

China buys the majority of Sudan's oil, and sell arms to the regime. In 2007, Spielberg wrote to its president Hu Jintao, explaining: "I have only recently come to understand fully the extent of China's involvement in the region and its strategic and supportive relationship with the Sudanese government.

"I add my voice to those who ask that China change its policy toward Sudan and pressure the Sudanese government to accept the entrance of United Nations peacekeepers to protect the victims of genocide in Darfur."

Spielberg was in the same year recruited to the Olympic cause by Chinese film director Zhang Yimou, and travelled to Beijing for meetings about the gala ceremonies. This didn't go down too well with Darfur activists, including Mia Farrow, who bluntly asked: "Does Mr Spielberg really want to go down in history as the Leni Riefenstahl of the Beijing Games?"

Riefenstahl is, of course, best remembered for her 1934 film of the Nazi party congress - Triumph of the Will - and also chronicled the 1936 Berlin Olympics in Olympia.

Announcing his decision to stand down, Spielberg said: "I find that my conscience will not allow me to continue with business as usual. At this point, my time and energy must be spent not on Olympic ceremonies but on doing all I can to help bring an end to the unspeakable crimes against humanity that continue to be committed in Darfur.

"Sudan's government bears the bulk of the responsibility for these ongoing crimes, but the international community, particularly China, should be doing more to end human suffering there. China's economic, military and diplomatic ties to the government of Sudan continue to provide it with the opportunity and obligation to press for change."

Spielberg's high-profile protest is likely to further fuel controversy over China's record on human rights. In Britain, the Mail on Sunday claimed last week that the British Olympic Association (BOA) had asked UK athletes to sign a "gagging clause" preventing them from making comments on "politically sensitive issues" while participating in the games.

The BOA later said it was not its intention to restrict athletes' freedom of speech, and clarified that the participants were simply required to sign, as is normal practice, an agreement which "makes them aware of Section 51 of the International Olympic Committee's charter", viz: that competitors "must refrain from any kind of demonstration or engaging in any political, religious or racial propaganda at Olympic sites".

A BOA spokesman told the BBC: "With a Games coming under the sort of scrutiny that this one is, it was felt pretty sensible to point out to the athletes - some of whom will not have been to an Olympic Games before - that there is a charter rule in existence."

BOA chief executive Simon Clegg did, however, admit: "I accept that the interpretation of one part of the draft BOA's Team Members Agreement appears to have gone beyond the provision of the Olympic Charter, this is not our intention nor is it our desire to restrict athletes' freedom of speech and the final agreement will reflect this."

Athletes will be "advised to speak to the BOC before speaking publicly" on political matters, the BBC notes. The BOC spokesman concluded: "Now, if an athlete answers [a] question honestly, there is not going to be an issue for us there. It's much more something where there is an overt decision to make a political point, using the games as a platform and that clearly is very different." ®

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