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Civil rights group slams protest zones

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- A Canadian civil rights watchdog group says protest zones at the Vancouver Games will increase the chances of Olympic demonstrators clashing with police.

Games organizers say protests will be allowed in police-controlled "safe assembly areas" within sight of the venues, media and spectators.

"The protesters believe they have the right to protest on public space wherever they please," British Columbia Civil Liberties Association spokesman David Eby said.

Police had been criticized for calling the areas "free-speech zones." Eby called them "protest pens."

Olympic organizers said this week a balance has been struck between Canada's freedom of expression rights and the protection of Olympic sponsors' areas.

It's a marked difference from last year's Beijing Olympics, where official protest areas were miles from venues. Beijing protesters had to apply for permission to hold demonstrations. Applications had to detail the purpose of the protest and list those involved. Chinese officials said almost 200 applications were received but most were withdrawn or rejected.

Protesters had targeted China for its record on human rights and Tibet. Protests near Beijing venues were quickly quelled.

The Vancouver Games security is being coordinated by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's Integrated Security Unit.

Vancouver passed bylaws recently establishing zones around Olympic venues to prevent marketing campaigns that could violate Olympic sponsorship contracts. The bylaws, which ban newspaper boxes within the zones, are to be enforced by Olympic volunteers, private security and city police. Eby said civil rights groups will train people to shadow those volunteers to ensure laws are not broken.

Canada has a history of violent responses to controlled protest areas. At the 1997 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vancouver, University of British Columbia students were arrested for posting signs, and police pepper-sprayed and strip-searched rioting demonstrators. Legal experts say there were violations of the Canadian Constitution.

In 2001, areas of Quebec City were fenced off for the Summit of the Americas in which 34 heads of state from North and South America attended.

Hundreds were arrested after police used rubber bullets and tear gas on demonstrators who had been corralled into protest zones. Anti-globalization activists called the actions of Quebec City police an attempt to suppress dissent.