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13 Dec 2021

#WhereIsPengShuai – SD submits complaint over IOC Ethical breach

On December 8, Safeguard Defenders (SD) filed a complaint to the International Olympic Committee’s Ethics and Compliance Officer over the conduct of IOC President Mr Tomas Bach, Chair of the IOC Athletes’ Commission Ms Emma Terho, and IOC Member in China Ms Li Lingwei following the disappearance of Chinese tennis player Ms Peng Shuai after she accused former Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault.

Represented by international barrister Michael Polak*, Safeguard Defenders submitted that counter to the WTA’s commendable actions, not only did the IOC representatives’ actions increase the immediate danger for Ms Peng Shuai and actively contribute to the PRC authorities’ propaganda efforts, on multiple counts Mr Bach, Ms Terho and Ms Lingwei acted in severe breach of the ethical principles of the Olympic Movement, the Olympic Charter and the Olympic ideal inspired by Pierre de Coubertin.

Drawing on both personal experience and extensive evidence collection on Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) - repeatedly defined by independent UN Procedures as enforced disappearances and torture – in a recent open letter, SD Director Peter Dahlin notes how Peng Shuai’s abrupt disappearance, her inability to engage in her regular life, and the string of ever stranger public statements and/or appearances, indicates beyond doubt that she is under police control’ and that ‘it is likely that Peng is either kept… [under] house arrest, RSDL or placed under control outside of any legal measures”.

On the basis of its first-hand witness accounts on the use of forced (televised) confessions or proof of life videos set in scene by PRC authorities to attack the target of the video, to ruin their reputation or their standing in their community, or otherwise weaken any voice they might have and/or to counter international criticism, the letter noted how Peng Shuai’s undisclosed video-calls heralded by IOC executives in international media were “like clockwork, as they responded to international criticism” and that “everything indicates she is and will remain  under strict control […] to ensure her #metoo allegations do not take hold, as such allegations are considered a threat to the CCP’s hold on power.

The complaint submits that the actions of the Chinese regime and their use of Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location, Residential Surveillance, and forced confessions are breaches of international law and that by their participation in these unlawful measures,  Mr Bach, Ms Terho and Ms Lin Lingwei are in breach of their duty under the IOC Code of Ethics to “use due care and diligence in fulfilling their mission”, to respect “universal fundamental ethical principles” and to respect “international conventions on protecting human rights”

Furthermore, by completely failing to call for a proper investigation to be carried out into the alleged sexual offence in media interviews, Mr Bach has further breached the provisions above as well as the duty to reject “all forms of harassment and abuse, be it physical, professional or sexual, and any physical or mental injuries”.

Both Mr Bach and Ms Lingwei further failed to “act with impartiality, objectivity, independence and professionalism”.  Whereas Mr Bach did not divulge his previous close relationship with ex-Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, Lin Lingwei was a representative of the Ninth National People's Congress, a member of the Standing Committee of the Twelfth National People's Congress, and a member of the Tenth and Eleventh National People's Political Consultative Conference and therefore anything but independent from the PRC Government.

In conclusion, the complaint submits that the continued actions of Mr Bach, Ms Terho and Ms Lin Lingwei are “likely to tarnish the reputation of the Olympic Movement”.

Upon submission of the complaint, legal representative Mr Polak stated: “It is clear that the way Mr Bach and the IOC leadership have behaved in relation to the censoring of Peng Shuai and the terrible situation she is in under the control of the Chinese authorities, has fallen below the standard one would expect of an international organisation. The Ethics Commission is supposed to hold IOC members and its executive to account. If they are unwilling to do this, then states around the world must call for a proper independent body to do so.”

On December 9, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bipartisan resolution condemning the IOC’s role in covering up Peng Shuai’s disappearance. Its proponent Rep. Jennifer Wexton stated: “While the IOC turns a blind eye to human rights abuses and puts its bottom line over athlete well-being, we are demanding Peng’s freedom and safety.”


*Michael Polak is an international barrister based in London. He practises in international, criminal, and human rights law from Church Court Chambers.  Michael is also a Director at Justice Abroad which helps people who need assistance dealing with legal proceedings overseas as well as working on human rights advocacy. He is chair of the group Lawyers for Uyghur Rights and was awarded the International Bar Association’s Outstanding Young Lawyer Award for 2021.