Held in China for taping a protest A W. Phila. journalist and a photographer were jailed during the Summer Games.

Posted: August 27, 2008

Brian Conley, an independent journalist from West Philadelphia, knew he was taking a risk when he traveled to China to make videos of pro-Tibet protests during the Olympic Games.

The 28-year-old video blogger figured he might get caught, be detained briefly, and then be deported.

He and five other Americans affiliated with the group Students for a Free Tibet were indeed arrested.

But after a 22-hour on-and-off interrogation, he was taken to jail far from the middle of Beijing and given a prison uniform.

"I realized, we're here for a while," Conley said yesterday in an interview from New York City. He was freed Sunday after six days behind bars.

The Chinese government had set up special zones for people who wanted to demonstrate during the Olympics, but no one had his or her applications approved. Two Chinese women in their late 70s were sentenced to a year of "reeducation through labor" for applying too many times.

Critics have accused China of human-rights abuses in Tibet, which has been under a police and paramilitary crackdown since riots in March.

A member of Students for a Free Tibet asked Conley whether he would like to document pro-Tibet protests during the Olympics.

Conley has received notice for his video blog, www.aliveinbaghdad.org, which has Iraqis recording everyday life.

Conley agreed to go to China and was joined by Jeffrey Rae, a New York photographer originally from Wayne. They arrived in Beijing on Aug. 10 and checked into the Bo Tai Hotel.

Until the night of Aug. 18, they had documented only one of the many unauthorized Tibet protests. That night, they met at a bar and were planning to record a second when Conley fell ill and went back to the hotel room he shared with Rae.

Late that night or shortly after midnight, there was knocking on the door. It was the police. "I was told at the time they were investigating alleged threats against foreigners by other foreigners and by Chinese people," Conley said.

The police took everything Conley and Rae had in the room. After some driving around, Conley was taken to a nearby hotel and held in a conference room.

They kept asking: "Why are you in Beijing? What are you doing here? Who sent you here?"

He kept replying that he was a tourist. He acknowledged recording a protest but said he just happened to be there when it occurred.

At one point, the police returned his mobile phone. The questioning was not continuous. A few times, he said, the police fell asleep.

Conley was able to text-message his wife, Eowyn Rieke, 38, who is due to have their first child in October.

"In jail. All fine," it read.

And so he thought. But when Conley was finally removed from the conference room, he saw that Rae and his other associates were also being held.

They were put in a van and Conley thought they were being sent to the airport. Instead, they went in the other direction.

He was taken to a jail, asked to provide medical information, and was given a prison outfit. He was then put in a cell with nine other prisoners: Two were Chinese; the rest were from around the world.

Conley characterized them as either visa violators or petty thieves. He said one Korean had been in jail for four months with no release date.

He was interrogated several more times. He and the others were accused of having fake visas and promoting public disorder. For that they were sentenced to 10 days of detention.

On the final day of the Games, Conley and the others were released early.

But not before Conley was smacked around for flashing a middle finger at a police officer taking his photograph at the airport. He said the police had repeatedly taken his picture and he was tired of it.

He could not afford the $1,800 ticket to Los Angeles that he was required to buy, but Rae was able to buy it for him. The six were joined on the flight by two other Americans detained for being involved in similar protests.

"My experience in China prior to that was great. Everyone was being friendly," he said. "But it was all kind of an illusion."

Conley said his treatment in China was "further indication of why I need to do this work."

Contact staff writer Robert Moran at 215-854-5983 or bmoran@phillynews.com.

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