HONG KONG --A dozen followers of the spiritual sect Falun Gong in Macau alleged Friday they have been stalked and photographed by plainclothes police over the past month. A Hong Kong human rights group accused the authorities in the tiny gambling enclave of violating the rights of the Falun Gong members. "The surveillance is tighter for some people and laxer for others," said Lam Iat-ming, one of the sect members. "The Macau police will take pictures of you practicing." "In one case, they stalked a female member when she practiced, went home to change clothes and went to work," Lam said. "They followed her home after she finished work." Some sect members say they have been tailed as often as three times a week. "We asked the police officers why they followed us and they said they were instructed by their superiors to do so," Lam said. Leong Wai-keong, senior superintendent of Macau police, said the authorities would have no comment for now. The Macau police officers allegedly monitoring the Falun Gong members are believed to be part of the the intelligence division, according to the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, a Hong Kong-based group that follows human rights issues in China. The center's director, Frank Lu, said the stalking continued after Lam, along with two other members, filed a complaint with the Justice Department in Macau March 29. Lu said the Macau police photographed 10 Falun Gong members while they practiced their meditation exercises on April 19. In a statement, the center urged the U.N. Human Rights Committee to take notice of the "serious infringement" of human rights. The center called on the Macau police to immediately halt such surveillance, which, they said, violated the new government arrangement dubbed "one country, two systems" put in place when Portugal returned Macau to China. Macau, a casino center 64 kilometers west of Hong Kong, cracked down on Falun Gong followers who tried to demonstrate during handover anniversary ceremonies attended by Chinese President Jiang Zemin in December. Some Falun Gong adherents from outside Macau were barred entry, while others were rounded up and deported.
BEIJING - The Chinese Foreign Ministry demanded on Thursday that the United States repatriate the leader of a spiritual sect that has been banned in China, where he is accused of violent crimes and could face the death penalty. "According to international practice, the United States should promptly return Zhang Honggbao to China," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue told a news conference. She said China had presented to the United States evidence of that Zhang, leader of the outlawed Zhong Gong sect, had committed rape, assault and murder. Zhang's group, which claims 30 million followers, dismisses the charges as fabrication. Along with the better-known Falun Gong spiritual movement, Zhong Gong has been banned in China as an "evil cult", accused of "using feudal superstition to deceive the masses".
Zhang, 47, was released from a Guam jail on Tuesday on "immigration parole" 15 months after arriving on the U.S. Pacific island territory seeking political asylum. He apparently has spent six years outside China. In a defiant letter to Chinese democracy activists after his release, Zhang wrote: "Using criminal allegations and libel is habitual and routine against dissidents of the Chinese Communist regime." He vowed to press China to release jailed political prisoners, Falun Gong and Zhong Gong followers, Christians and ethnic minority activists from Buddhist Tibet and Muslim Xinjiang.
ASYLUM CASE PENDING
Last June, a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) judge told Zhang he would be given political asylum. But confirmation was delayed as INS authorities studied a Chinese embassy demand that the request be denied. In September the INS judge denied Zhang asylum but granted "wrongful withholding," allowing him to remain in the United States indefinitely, but not releasing him from jail. Both the U.S. government and Zhang have appealed the September ruling. Zhang's lawyers hope the two sides can come to an agreement on granting asylum, however, because the appeals process could take years. One of Zhang's lawyers, Robert Shapiro, said on Wednesday the sect leader's whereabouts were being kept secret because there had been attempts on his life of in the past several years he has been outside China. Shapiro voiced confidence Zhang would get asylum in the United States -- a move which would antagonise China. China is angry that the United States has refused to repatriate Falun Gong leader Li Hongzhi and that the United States has criticised China's harsh crackdown on the group. The Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights & Democracy said in a statement on Wednesday Chinese authorities had embarked on a nationwide crackdown on meditation groups which has resulted in the closure of 185 groups in the central province of Shanxi alone.
BEIJING - A triumphant China expressed "admiration and thanks" on Thursday to nations that helped block a resolution censuring it at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and took a swipe at the United States for proposing the move.
China used a controversial "no action" motion to block the resolution at the rights meet in Geneva on Wednesday -- as it has almost every year since its troops killed hundreds of pro-democracy protesters around Tiananmen Square in 1989.
"The Chinese government wishes to express admiration and thanks to all the countries which upheld justice and supported China," the official Xinhua news agency quoted Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue as saying.
"Although the United States canvassed for support here and there by cajoling or coercing, it had found no country to co-sponsor the anti-China motion," Zhang said.
"Once again the United States fell into a predicament of self-isolation and its failure has long been expected."
The 53-nation annual gathering in Geneva approved Beijing's "no action" motion by a vote of 23 in favour, 17 against and 12 abstentions. One delegation was absent. Asian countries including Pakistan rallied to China's side.
The outcome, though no surprise, was a crucial boost to China as it confronts the United States over a number of sensitive issues, including a collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese jet fighter, and U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
Criticism of China's human rights record, especially a crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement, also threatens to derail Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Olympics ahead of the International Olympic Committee's July vote on the host city.
U.S. SAYS UNFORTUNATE
The United States said it was unfortunate the resolution was shelved, but believed Washington had made its point.
"We think it's unfortunate that more members of the Human Rights Commission didn't choose to take up the China resolution at the commission this year," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told a news conference.
Zhang accused Washington of being driven by domestic politics to interfere in China's internal affairs and "tarnish China's image in the world."
"Once more facts have shown that the attempt to exert political pressure on other countries under the pretext of the human right issue to pursue hegemonism and power politics is against people's will and will go nowhere," Zhang said.
A commentary in the People's Daily, the main Communist Party newspaper, urged the United States to deal with its own human rights problems before criticising others.
The English-language China Daily drew attention in an editorial to recent race riots in Cincinnati, Ohio.
"Ridiculous and hypocritical as it is, the United States, unable to cope with its own human rights abuses, blatantly applies a double standard in its accusations of human rights violations by others," it said.
A cartoon in the paper showed Uncle Sam sitting on a black man while scrutinising Asia through a magnifying glass.
CHINA SAYS READY TO COOPERATE
Boucher said the U.S. goal was to encourage China to adhere to international standards of human rights and focus international attention to what he called the worsening human rights situation in China in the past year.
Zhang said China was ready to work with others to continue to promote human rights through dialogue.
"We would advise the U.S. side to change its practice, realise its errors and mend its way, and return to the right track of dialogue as soon as possible," she said.
The Chinese government was dedicated to "promoting and protecting the human rights and basic freedom of the Chinese people in accordance with the actual national conditions," she said.
Critics accuse China of widespread human rights abuses, especially against its Tibetan minority, worshippers at underground Christian churches and followers of Falun Gong.
China calls the banned spiritual group an "evil cult" which brainwashes and cheats, but rights groups accuse Beijing of conducting a campaign of repression, including detentions and beatings, against its members.
Falun Gong practitioners, who say some 190 adherents have died in police custody, held protests on Wednesday around the U.N. building in Geneva, where the forum is holding its annual six-week session until April 27.
The Chinese government says that a handful of Falun Gong adherents have died in custody, but that they either committed suicide or died of natural causes.
WASHINGTON - The exact U.S. whereabouts of the leader of a spiritual sect that has been banned in China are being kept secret because of concerns for his security, one of his lawyers, Robert Shapiro, said on Wednesday.
Shapiro said in Los Angeles there had been attempts on the life of Zhang Hongbao, leader of the banned Zhong Gong sect, in the past several years he has been outside China.
Although he was at little risk in the United States, Shapiro said, "I don't want to take any chances."
Zhang was released from a Guam jail on Tuesday on "immigration parole" 15 months after arriving on the U.S. Pacific island territory seeking political asylum. He apparently has spent six years' exile outside China.
The U.S. government would not comment on Zhang's case, in line with its policy on pending asylum cases. However under the terms of his parole he must notify the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) of his movements.
Shapiro said Zhang, 47, had arrived in the mainland United States but would not elaborate further.
Along with the better-known Falun Gong spiritual movement, Zhong Gong has been banned in China as an "evil cult," accused of "using feudal superstition to deceive the masses."
Last June, an INS judge told Zhang he would be given political asylum. But confirmation was delayed as INS authorities studied a Chinese embassy demand that the request be denied.
Beijing has accused Zhang of raping followers, charges which his group dismisses as fabrication.
In September the INS judge denied Zhang asylum but granted "wrongful withholding," allowing him to remain in the United States indefinitely, but not releasing him from jail.
Both the U.S. government and Zhang have appealed the September ruling.
Zhang's lawyers hope the two sides can come to an agreement on granting asylum, however, because the appeals process could take years.
"We're very confident he's going to get asylum," Shapiro said.
The Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights & Democracy said in a statement on Wednesday that Chinese authorities have embarked on a nationwide crackdown on meditation groups which has resulted in the closure of 185 meditation groups in the central province of Shanxi alone.
HONG KONG - The leader of a spiritual sect that has been banned in China has urged the United Nations to censure Beijing over its human rights record.
Zhang Hongbao, leader of the Zhong Gong sect, called on the U.N. to vote in favour of a U.S. resolution condemning China, the Information Centre for Human Rights & Democracy said in a statement on Wednesday.
The vote is scheduled to be taken later on Wednesday in Geneva.
In an open letter following his release from a 15-month detention by U.S.
immigration authorities in Guam, Zhang also demanded the Chinese government free all jailed dissidents, the centre said.
Separately, it said Chinese authorities have embarked on a nationwide crackdown on meditation groups which has resulted in the closure of 185 meditation groups in the central province of Shanxi alone.
The Hong Kong-based group said also that the leader of the Shen Chang Human Anatomy Group has been arrested and will face charges in China for "using an evil cult to breach the law."
Shen Chang, the group's founder, was arrested last July in the south eastern Chinese city of Suzhou for tax evasion, the Hong Kong group said.
The Hong Kong group said on Wednesday that the Chinese government has also sought to crackdown on the Xiang Gong meditation group by closing down its headquarters in the central city of Luoyang last month.
Its founder, Tian Ruishen, has since gone missing and his family have been arrested, the centre said.
GENEVA - China looked likely to escape censure again at the U.N.
human rights forum Wednesday by sidestepping a U.S. resolution condemning its record.
The U.N. Commission on Human Rights, in the final stretch of its annual six-week session to examine violations worldwide, is due Wednesday to examine the records of countries including China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq and Sudan.
The United States is expected to call for a vote in the 53-member state U.N.
forum on its resolution accusing China of violations including the repression of Tibetans and of the Falun Gong spiritual movement.
But rights groups said they expected China to quash any true debate, and that Western resolutions on Iran and Cuba could also be defeated by the Commission.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has denounced the composition of this year's forum, whose new members with voting rights include states accused of serious abuses -- Algeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Vietnam.
"I am very pessimistic on China. It is very, very unlikely something different from last year and the year before would happen," Joanna Weschler, of Human Rights Watch, said.
"Cuba is extremely iffy ... . Iran is a big question mark," Weschler, a veteran of the annual event, told Reuters in Geneva.
Debate on a European Union (EU) resolution condemning Russia's continued use of "disproportionate and indiscriminate force" against civilians in breakaway Chechnya is now expected Friday. Negotiations continue with Russia, diplomats said.
U.S. TO CALL FOR CHINA VOTE
The U.S. resolution also calls on China to permit freedom of religion, release all political prisoners and to eliminate a system of detention known as "reeducation through labor," which allows for imprisonment without trial.
Supporters of Falun Gong held rallies Tuesday in Hong Kong and Washington ahead of an evening candlelight vigil by up to 200 Falun Gong members outside the U.N. building in Geneva.
In a statement, the group alleged that at least 193 people had been killed by torture and police brutality during the "illegal crackdown" on its practitioners begun in 1999.
"Most of these deaths have occurred in the past five months; 16 deaths have been reported during the first four weeks of the Commission's current session," it said in Geneva.
Dominique Nardin, a Falun Gong spokeswoman, told Reuters: "We are gathering to commemorate the lives of victims of persecution. Members have come from various countries."
China, which describes the Falun Gong as "an evil cult," generally enjoys wide support among Asian and other developing countries at the main U.N.
Many Western diplomats and U.N. sources doubt the U.S. resolution will even be debated, as China is expected to present its own motion calling for "no action" on the U.S. text.
By using this controversial procedural maneuver, China has avoided examination of its record every year since its troops' killings of hundreds of protesters in Beijing in June 1989.
Negotiations continued on a Czech Republic resolution on Cuba amid heated Western debate on its references to the U.S. embargo on the communist island, diplomats said.
Its wording had criticized the decades-old embargo on Cuba, angering Washington, but was watered down in a later draft -- upsetting the French delegation, they added.
About 100 Iranians protested outside the U.N. in Geneva on Tuesday, calling for "decisive condemnation of human rights abuses in Iran." The protest was organized by the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran.
HONG KONG - Followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, banned on the mainland but legal in Hong Kong, plan to stage an array of events when Chinese President Jiang Zemin visits the territory next month.
Hui Yee-han, a spokeswoman for the movement in Hong Kong, told Reuters adherents would exercise as a group, hold an outdoor photo exhibition and distribute flyers about Falun Gong from May 8 to May 10, coinciding with the 2001 Fortune Global Forum that Jiang is expected to attend.
"We'll practise our five sets of exercise," Hui said on Wednesday. "We'll distribute some flyers explaining the real stories of Falun Gong and we'll have some photo exhibitions.
"We still want to expose the brutal crackdown and the torture being carried out on Falun Gong practitioners in China."
Another practitioner, Evian Wong, said the group aims also to organise an indoor photo exhibition and a seminar to coincide with Jiang's expected visit.
It had sought to stage the events at a number of government-owned properties, including City Hall where it held a high-profile conference in January, but was told the premises had been booked out, Wong said.
Wong said the group was now trying to book other venues.
Falun Gong adherents condemned Jiang for Beijing's crackdown on the movement at an international conference held in City Hall in January.
The Apple Daily newspaper said on Wednesday Jiang's Hong Kong visit had been cut to just one day from the week originally planned because of the Falun Gong issue.
But a Hong Kong government spokeswoman told Reuters Jiang's itinerary had yet to be confirmed.
The spiritual movement, also known as Falun Dafa, combines meditation and exercise with a doctrine loosely rooted in Buddhist and Taoist teachings.
The group first rattled Beijing in April last year with a 10,000-strong protest around the country's leadership compound, and the movement was subsequently banned on the mainland.
Beijing has accused Falun Gong of trying to overthrow the government, detained thousands of adherents and jailed some 150 prominent members for "using a cult to obstruct justice."
But Falun Gong remains legal in Hong Kong, a former British colony which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with guarantees of a high level of autonomy.
WASHINGTON - Exiled members of China's Falungong spiritual movement on Tuesday accused President Jiang Zemin of presiding over "brutal and systematic" repression and violence against women during a "brutal"
crackdown on the banned group.
Marking an international day of protest, the group issued a report packed with allegations that Chinese domestic security forces were guilty of torturing, murdering and sexually abusing arrested female Falungong practitioners.
It accused Chinese police of using 40 types of torture against female practitioners, including electric shock treatment to sensitive body parts, beatings, sleep deprivation and sexual abuse.
Falungong spokesman Keith Ware said China had routinely subjected female members of the group, which it has branded as an evil cult, to "unimaginable abuse."
"The Falungong practitioners in China have chosen to stand up against Jiang's forces of evil. Their cause is just and their means are peaceful," Ware said at a press conference.
"We call once again for an immediate end to the atrocities against Falungong practitioners."
The press conference featured testimony from alleged victims of police brutality.
One practitioner, Amy Lee, said she had been arrested in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in May 2000 and was beaten and interrogated before being sent to a "transformation class" intended to force her to renounce her beliefs.
Her husband divorced her and was awarded custody of her child under police pressure, she said.
"Numerous practitioners like me have been deprived of the basic human right to the freedom of belief, the right to work, the right to raise a child and the right to live a normal life," she said.
No one was available at China's Washington embassy to respond to the allegations.
Practitioners called on delegates at the United Nations Human Rights commission, which meets on Wednesday in Geneva, to support a resolution critical of China.
The United States is backing the effort, but Beijing has mounted a massive lobbying operation to prevent the resolution from being brought to a vote.
The Falungong says 189 people have been killed by torture and police brutality in the nearly two-year crackdown on Falungong practitioners.
Beijing banned the quasi-Buddhist sect, which advocates pure living and meditative exercises, in 1999.
Falungong supporters in the United States, Europe and Hong Kong were taking part in candlelit vigils and protests on Tuesday.
Analysts say the group -- founded by leader Li Hongzhi, who lives in exile in New York -- has emerged as one of the few organizations in China with the means to mobilise against Beijing's Communist rulers.
But the group says it has no political agenda.
On the eve of a vote on a resolution before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights against China, Falun Gong, a spiritualist group, that has practitioners in China, the United States and elsewhere, called on the international community to join the United States at the Geneva meeting and condemn China.
Falun Gong contends that since that Geneva conference began earlier this month, China has killed 14 of the group's practitioners by brutally torturing them to death. Among the recent deaths were women and an eight-month-old baby. The death toll, according to Falun Gong has risen to 193 of its practitioners.
"The United States has advanced a resolution to condemn China for its widespread and systemic abuses. China, as it has done at past commissions, is trying to block discussion of its human rights violations by issuing its own motion for 'no action.' We are here to appeal to the international community and all of the U.N delegates to support the vote to proceed with this debate and join with the United States to condemn China's actions," Keith Ware, a Falun Gong practitioner told a Washington news conference.
Ware added, "President Jiang Zemin has issued an order 'to eradicate Falun Gong by all means'. We urge China to stop the killing and torture. President Jiang has ordered that police who beat practitioners to death are not to be held accountable. The Falun Gong practitioners in China have chosen to stand up against Jiang's forces of evil. China cannot hope to become a truly respected member of the world community unless it is willing to take steps to improve its human rights record."
Falun Gong plans a candlelight vigil Tuesday night at the Chinese Embassy in Washington to protest its human rights record. Other vigils are set for Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, Houston, Chicago and Honolulu. The group also has candlelight vigils set in many Asian and European capitals as well.
The group also released its latest report on what it called "Extensive and Severe Human Rights Violations in the Suppression of Falun Gong." It documents more than 600 previously unpublished cases of detention, torture, brutality and harassment that Falun Gong practitioners and some local governments have suffered both inside and outside of China.
Falun Gong styles itself as individuals that conduct a "meditation practice for mind and body" as well as teaching the "practice of truthfulness-compassion-tolerance in everyday life."
Ware said Falun Gong is not a 'political group,' has no 'political agenda,' and had no comment on the recent reconnaissance plane incident between the U.S. and China. If President Bush goes to China in October, Ware hopes he "will keep our [Falun Gong] wishes in mind."
"We hope that they [the Bush administration] stop the persecution in China.
The Bush administration has supported us pretty strongly to this point," Ware said.
Later in the press conference, a reporter identifying himself from China's official Xinhua news agency asked if Falun Gong was a "cult", Ware heatedly denied that it is.
"Here in America, 200 years ago, we had to fight for our freedom. Patrick Henry said 'Give me liberty or give me death'. You used a word that is not what we are. We know what we are, and we are defining what we are. We are not a cult. We are practitioners of Falun Gong. In no way are we related to anything that resembles a cult. If you would like to define what a cult is, we would certainly engage in a debate on that. We are fighting for our freedom to be able to do our exercises," Ware said.
Meanwhile, China's People's Daily, the official government newspaper published a commentary in its Tuesday edition condemning the "Falun Gong cult" for doing what the newspaper called "its evil deeds against innocent people."
"As with other evil cults in the world, Falun Gong not only incites its followers to commit suicides, but also instigates them to kill or injure others, thus bringing disasters to the victims and deep sorrow to the victims' families. Today, evil cults have become very harmful to the world, they create heretical ideas, apotheosize cult leaders, exert mental control of people, collect money by playing tricks, break laws, undermine social stability and kill people," the People's Daily editorial said.
"The Chinese government," the editorial continued, "has made great efforts to put down the Falun Gong cult. So far, most Falun Gong followers in China have realized the cult's nature. Thanks to the government's help, many innocent people, especially women, children and the elderly, have been well protected and have returned to normal life."
The editorial concluded with a call for the "Chinese people to wipe out Falun Gong from the society."
BEIJING --A day after the Wall Street Journal received a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on China's often brutal effort to stamp out the Falun Gong spiritual movement, China called on foreign reporters Thursday to publicize its claim that the group is an "anti-humanity" cult. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue defended the crackdown and, without mentioning the Journal or its prize, complained about news reports focusing on abuses that China says have not occurred. "Falun Gong is an anti-humanity, anti-society, anti-science cult," Zhang said at a routine ministry news briefing. "It is our hope that foreign correspondents in China make more coverage on that instead of making irresponsible conclusions or irresponsible reports on this question." Articles by Journal reporter Ian Johnson that received the most prestigious U.S. journalism award cited numerous allegations of torture and killings of sect members in police custody - something that China says does not happen. The Wall Street Journal and its various editions are wholly owned by Dow Jones & Co. (DJ), which also publishes this and other newswires, as well as Barron's, The Far Eastern Economic Review and other magazines. Dow Jones owns 50% of CNBC financial television operations in Asia and Europe and provides content to CNBC in the U.S. Falun Gong attracted millions of members during the 1990s with a mix of spirituality, meditation and exercise. Fearing the group could challenge communist rule, the government banned it in July 1999. Police efforts to discourage hardcore members from protesting the ban have caused the deaths of scores of practitioners, human rights groups say. The United States has cited repression against Falun Gong in a proposed resolution condemning China's human rights record to be voted on this week at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva.
HONG KONG --The Falun Gong spiritual sect said Tuesday it will protest during a visit next month by Chinese President Jiang Zemin, and pro-Beijing forces immediately criticized what they called a calculated attempt to embarrass China. Falun Gong intends to air its complaints about mainland China's often-brutal crackdown outside a business conference here also to be attended by former U.S. President Bill Clinton. "We hope to take this opportunity to tell them about Falun Gong," said Kan Hung-cheung, a local spokesman for the sect that is outlawed and branded an "evil cult" in mainland China. "We hope they will be concerned with this matter and help us to stop the crackdown." Falun Gong is legal in Hong Kong, which continues to enjoy Western-style freedoms of speech and religion almost four years after Britain returned its former colony to China. But Beijing's allies among Hong Kong politicians and newspapers have been infuriated in the past at what they call Falun Gong's abuse of its local freedoms to attack Chinese policy, right on Chinese soil. Ma Lik, secretary general of Hong Kong's largest Beijing-aligned political party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, said Falun Gong is aiming to "advertise itself and to embarrass Jiang Zemin." "They shouldn't do this," said Ma, who also is a representative to the Chinese National People's Congress. "They are not clever. It will not serve them or do Hong Kong any good if they use Hong Kong to do this." Ma added in a telephone interview that it will be "disadvantageous" to Falun Gong's activities here if the protests stop Jiang from visiting Hong Kong or disturb Jiang's route during the visit. Kan said Falun Gong's protest schedule hasn't been finalized, but it is planning a series of activities including a peaceful demonstration, mass meditation exercises, outdoor and indoor exhibitions and the distribution of leaflets. Kan said the activities - coinciding with a Fortune magazine conference on May 8-10 to be attended by Jiang and Clinton - are expected to attract Falun Gong members from Japan, Singapore and Taiwan, and as far away as Australia, Europe, Canada and the U.S. Falun Gong hasn't yet found a venue for its exhibition, although it has complained previously that some local hotels have refused to rent any space to the sect. The group stirred a major local controversy in January by hiring a venue in Hong Kong City Hall to host an event at which participants accused authorities of carrying out the torture-killings of Falun Gong adherents in mainland China. Pro-Beijing lawmaker Yeung Yiu-chung said any of the sect's activities here wouldn't be "showing the truth to the world, but they would be an embarrassment to China." The Hong Kong government didn't immediately return a reporter's phone calls inquiring about the planned protest. As Beijing's local allies have clamored for a clampdown on Falun Gong activities here, Hong Kong officials have said they will closely monitor the group, but they have stopped short of taking any actions against the sect. Wiping out Falun Gong remains a priority in mainland China, and local pro-democracy advocates say Hong Kong's handling of the Falun Gong issue could be a crucial test of local freedoms.
HONG KONG - The U.S. Pacific island territory of Guam on Tuesday freed the leader of a spiritual sect that is banned in China, a Hong Kong human rights group said.
Zhang Hongbao, leader of the Zhong Gong sect, walked free 15 months after he arrived on the island seeking political asylum, the Information Center for Human Rights & Democracy said in a statement.
Zhang, 47, will head for the mainland United States for a hearing of his application for asylum on April 24, it added. U.S. officials were not immediately available to comment.
"Zhang Hongbao's release points to the changes in Sino-U.S. strategic relations after the aircraft collision," the human rights group said.
Beijing and Washington blame each other for the April 1 mid-air collision between a U.S. spyplane and Chinese fighter which set off an 11-day diplomatic stand-off. Neither side has shown any sign, in public at least, of backing down on their positions.
In June, a U.S. Immigration and Naturalisation Service court told Zhang he would be given political asylum. But confirmation was delayed as INS authorities studied a Chinese embassy demand that the request be denied.
The Hong Kong group suggested some U.S. authorities might have resisted granting him political asylum in the face of pressure from China.
"The Sino-U.S. plane collision accentuates the countries' conflicts," the human rights group said. "Under such circumstances, Zhang has been released."
"It is known that Zhang Hongbao's chance of winning the political asylum case is very high," it added.
Along with the better-known Falun Gong spiritual movement, Zhong Gong has been banned in China as an "evil cult," accused of "using feudal superstition to deceive the masses."
Beijing has accused Zhang of raping followers, charges which his group dismisses as fabrication.
Zhang went to Guam after six years' exile outside China. To date, the United States has given him only "protection status."
HONG KONG - Dozens of Falun Gong members staged a peaceful demonstration in Hong Kong Tuesday, ahead of a United Nations vote on China's human rights record.
The Falun Gong movement - which combines meditation and exercise with a doctrine loosely rooted in Buddhist and Taoist teachings - has been banned in China but permitted in Hong Kong.
Beijing has described the Falun Gong as "an evil cult," and says the organization "fabricates heretical fallacies, practices cult leader-worship, exercises mind control, violates fundamental human rights and creates social disturbance in China."
Stationing themselves outside Hong Kong's Star Ferry piers in the Central and Tsimshatsui districts Tuesday, the Falun Gong members distributed leaflets to passers-by and practiced their moves behind banners that said: "Act now: Stop the killing in China."
They held up luminous light-sticks as darkness fell, maintaining a vigil for their mainland-based counterparts.
Falun Gong members allege that at least 189 people in mainland China have been tortured to death by police during Beijing's crackdown on the movement, with most of the deaths said to have occurred in the past five months.
Similar vigils would be held in other major cities worldwide, including Geneva, Paris, San Francisco and Toronto, the Falun Gong members said in a statement.
The Falun Gong movement claims to have millions of followers in China and has shocked the ruling Communist Party there by its persistence and ability to organize mass protests despite a nationwide crackdown.
The U.N. Commission on Human Rights is scheduled to convene this week to vote on whether to debate China's human rights violations.
HONG KONG --A local human rights group criticized the Hong Kong government on Monday for its treatment of the spiritual sect Falun Gong, saying it amounts to censorship. "Falun Gong in Hong Kong can't criticize the Chinese government or engage in politically sensitive activities," said Human Rights Monitor director Law Yuk-kai. "We are concerned about the possibility that their future activities may be barred from public venues, although that hasn't happened yet." The group's opinion is to be submitted on Thursday in a position paper to a U.N. committee in Geneva before it holds a hearing later this month. Pro-Beijing officials in Hong Kong have urged a clampdown on the sect, saying the government shouldn't allow the partially autonomous territory to be used as a base by Falun Gong to pressure mainland China, where it is outlawed. Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa has said Falun Gong "more or less bears the characteristics of an evil cult," but he also said his government wouldn't crack down on it. In its statement to the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Human Rights Monitor group urges the committee to call upon the Hong Kong government to respect freedom of expression and to ensure that all relevant government departments remain free of political biases against Falun Gong and refrain from exercising political censorship. "What Falun Gong followers have been doing is nothing but peaceful exercise of their freedoms of association, assembly, and expression, and to uphold and practice their beliefs in Hong Kong," the statement said. The rights groups will also criticize the government's recent decision to seek Beijing's interpretation of Hong Kong's mini-constitution over the rights of mainland migrants' children to stay in Hong Kong. "It's dangerous to ask a political body in mainland China to handle such issues," Law said. "Our rights can't be protected and the government's abuse of power will go unchecked." The Hong Kong government didn't return a reporter's telephone call Monday, asking for reaction to the statements by the local human rights group. Six officials from Human Rights Monitor, and 14 other people, including unionists, legislators and an equal opportunities watchdog, will attend the U.N. hearing in Geneva on April 27 and 30.
What Is Falun Gong? See "Falun Gong 101", by Massimo Introvigne
"Falun Gong 101. Introduzione al Falun Gong e alla sua presenza in Italia" (in italiano), di Massimo Introvigne
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