WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Human Rights Watch on Tuesday accused the International Olympic Committee of being complicit in China's rights abuses ahead of the 2022 Beijing Winter Games after the IOC president's call with Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who supporters say may be under political duress.
Foreign governments and rights advocates stepped up criticism of China's human rights practices when Peng disappeared for nearly three weeks after alleging on social media that China's former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli had sexually assaulted her.
A former doubles world No. 1, Peng re-appeared over the weekend in Beijing and held a video call with IOC President Thomas Bach on Sunday. But the Women's Tennis Association and top current and former tennis players have called for reassurance that Peng is safe, and rights groups have labeled efforts by Chinese state media to allay concerns about her well-being as unconvincing.
HRW's China director Sophie Richardson told a news briefing the IOC had shown a "remarkable lack of judgment" in its handling of the Peng case and "active complicity" in Beijing's abuses. She said its interest seemed to be to keep the Games on track, not the welfare of athletes.
She criticized Bach for failing to make clear publicly whether he had asked Peng if she had access to a lawyer or wanted to file charges around serious sexual assault claims, and encouraged governments to boycott diplomatically the Beijing Games, set for February.
"The IOC has shown in the last few days just how desperate it is to keep the Games on the rails, no matter the human costs," Richardson said, while also slamming corporate sponsors of the Games for staying silent on Peng.
The IOC did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.
HRW China researcher Yaqiu Wang said the IOC had participated in Beijing's "government-created narrative."
"It's very, very hard to imagine they can just reach out to Peng Shuai without going through the Chinese government," Wang said.
Peng's case has increased calls for a diplomatic boycott of the Games from rights groups and others already critical of Beijing over its policies in Hong Kong and treatment of minority Muslims, which the United States says amounts to genocide.
U.S. President Joe Biden has said Washington is considering such a boycott, under which U.S. officials would not attend the opening or closing ceremonies.
(Reporting by Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Dan Grebler)