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Ahead of Olympics, Vancouver assaults civil liberties

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Vancouver may be the world’s most livable city, at least according to one survey, but many of its residents are upset by what they see as an assault on civil liberties intended to silence critics of the Olympic Games.

For months, this picturesque metropolis of 2 million people, sandwiched between forest-covered mountains and the Pacific Ocean, has been the site of an increasingly bitter dispute between the city’s Olympic organizing committee and civil rights activists who say the city has stepped over the line in its efforts to keep dissent as far away as possible from international news cameras.

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The controversy began in earnest last summer, when a group calling itself the Olympics Resistance Network accused the city’s Olympic security unit of harassing their members by showing up at their homes and issuing “thinly veiled threats to interfere with their jobs and invasions of personal spaces,” Vancouver’s The Province reported.

Concerns over civil liberties were ramped up when the provincial government of British Columbia passed a law allowing Vancouver to ban anti-Olympic signs, even when they are on private property. Under that law, residents can be imprisoned for six months and fined $10,000 ($9,500 US) for not removing “offensive” signage. Equally alarming to some was a provision that allows police to enter private property without a warrant to remove the signs.

“It used to be that a person’s home was his castle, but now the local governments want to storm the citadel of every castle to take down signs they regard as offensive to their Olympic plans,” said Robert Holmes, president of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.

“Telling people who exercise free speech that local authorities may barge in, rip down signs inside your property, fine you or throw you in jail will underscore the growing impression that our governments care more about their own camera appearances at Olympic events than about people’s rights,” Holmes added.

Meanwhile, Canadian border guards have been accused of using their powers in an effort to keep out American activists who may criticize the Olympics.

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In a widely-reported incident last fall, Amy Goodman, the host of Democracy Now!, was detained at the Washington State-British Columbia border and grilled over whether she planned to discuss the Olympics at public appearances in Canada. Goodman was not; she was scheduled to give a talk about her new book at the Vancouver Public Library.

In a column, Goodman wrote that her treatment at the hands of Canadian border guards was “a flagrant violation of … freedom of speech” that has “serious implications for the freedom of the press in North America.”

Earlier this week, Vancouver’s poet laureate declared he would not participate in the Olympics because of civil rights abuses, as well as attempts by the city to control what Olympics-linked artists do.

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“Vancouver is the most politically progressive city in North America with a strong history of political activism which most Vancouverites are proud of,” Brad Cran wrote. “Rather than finding a way to celebrate these important attributes, [the Vancouver Olympics committee] has gone the other way and tried to suppress them.”

Many residents of Vancouver were upset when the city ordered a number of popular and long-lasting murals to be painted over because of concerns it could reflect poorly on the city’s reputation. Vancouverites responded by painting a new mural over the site of one of the old ones, with the words “With glowing hearts, we kill the arts.” That’s a pun on a line in Canada’s national anthem, “With glowing hearts, we see thee rise.”

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Residents were further upset when it was reported that the Olympic security unit was planning to ban photography in public spaces around Olympic venues. After a public outcry, officials appear to have backed off that decree.

Some political activists fear the police will use agents provocateurs during anti-Olympic protests — officers dressed as protesters who incite violence so that protesters can then be arrested.

That’s more than a conspiracy theory; in recent years, Canadian police forces have developed a reputation for using just such tactics. Most famously, during a 2007 meeting in Quebec between President George W. Bush, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon, a masked protester who was inciting violence was outed as a member of Quebec’s provincial police force. His standard-issue police boots gave him away.

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Yet Vancouver’s civil rights transgressions are relatively minor compared to what some other Olympic venues have been accused of doing in the name of a picture-perfect Olympics.

In a statement released Friday, Human Rights Watch warned that Olympic Games have been used in the past to crush political dissent, and may be used that way again in the future.

“One ugly legacy of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games is the continued imprisonment in China of those who protested forced evictions or called for human rights improvements there,” the group stated.

“The next Winter Games are scheduled to take place in the Russian town of Sochi, where preparations for the Olympics have already generated concerns about the potential for rights violations linked to these preparations.”

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