Switzerland's Tibetans protest amid China visit

BERNE, Switzerland (AFP) - Tibetan exiles on Friday urged Swiss authorities to take China to task for its human rights record, amid a landmark visit by Premier Li Keqiang focused squarely on a trade deal.

Waving Tibetan flags and chanting slogans such as "free the prisoners", "stop the killing" and "long live the Dalai Lama", hundreds of demonstrators rallied in the Swiss capital Berne.

"We're asking the Swiss government not to forget the principles of human rights," community leader Pasang Memmishofer told AFP.

"Our basic message is that the condition in Tibet is disastrous. Tibetans can't live in a dignified way. They are second-class citizens in their own home," she added.

Switzerland is home to a Tibetan community of some 5,000 people which has grown up since China took over Tibet in 1959.

Its protests during visits by Chinese officials have in the past seen Berne face sharp rebukes from Beijing.

Ms Memmishofer, whose husband is also Tibetan but was adopted by a Swiss family, said that despite Beijing's claims that exiles want to split the Himalayan region from China, they are simply seeking respect and autonomy.

"We're asking Premier Li to resume a dialogue with us. Only through dialogue can anything happen," she added.

Mr Li is on his first visit to Europe since taking the helm in March in a once-in-a-decade Beijing power transfer.

He was on Friday to ink a preliminary free-trade deal with Switzerland, before heading to Germany, China's top European commercial partner.

Due to be signed formally in July, the Swiss deal follows a similar accord last month with Iceland, as Beijing underscores its growing global role and seeks to strike an agreement with the European Union, of which neither Switzerland nor Iceland is a member.

There have been suggestions that building trade ties could help promote human rights and democracy in China, but Ms Memmishofer said that process, even if it happened, would be too slow.

"Will it take another 50 years of suffering in Tibet? The situation is getting worse," she said.