BEIJING - A court in southwest China sentenced a member of the banned Falun Gong spiritual group to death on Wednesday for murdering a fellow villager who refused to help him commit suicide, the official Xinhua news agency said.
The Liuzhou District Intermediate People's Court in the southwestern region of Guangxi found Lan Yunchang from Rongan county guilty of killing fellow villager, Wei Shaoming, and sentenced him to death with a two-year reprieve, Xinhua said.
Such death sentences are often commuted to life imprisonment depending on the prisoner's behaviour.
Branding Lan a "diehard" Falun Gong adherent, Xinhua said he killed Wei with an axe on April 16 after the latter refused to give him arsenic to help him commit suicide.
Lan turned himself into police the day after, it said.
The sentence came just days after 45 alleged Falun Gong organisers were sentenced in Beijing to up to 13 years in prison for organising protests, making banners and printing leaflets in defiance of a government ban.
Falun Gong says more than 50,000 practitioners have been sent to prisons, labour camps and mental hospitals since China banned the group in 1999.
Human rights groups estimate some 200 Falun Gong adherents have died from torture during detention in China.
China says the group is trying to overthrow the Communist Party and has caused the death of at least 1,800 people by suicide or refusal of medical treatment.
SEATTLE - A dozen members of the banned Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong started a 900-mile (1,440-km) trek from Seattle to San Francisco on Wednesday amid a chilly rain to protest China's campaign against the group.
The protesters planned to march to the Chinese consulate in San Francisco to demand the release of Falun Gong adherents who have been jailed as China seeks to stamp out the movement, which it has branded an "evil cult."
Falun Gong supporters highlighted Teng Chunyan, a permanent U.S. resident who was sentenced last year to three years in a labor camp and whose case has been raised with Beijing by the administration of President George W. Bush.
Beijing accused Teng of spying, but Falun Gong supporters say she was jailed for passing evidence to a foreign reporter in China that police were torturing the movement's adherents.
"In a sick twist of fate, Dr. Teng is now subject to the same abuses that she sought to document and end," Falun Gong supporter Ten Truong told a small gathering outside the U.S. federal building in downtown Seattle.
"We fear for the lives of Dr. Teng and countless other practitioners in China. They are clearly in grave mortal danger," Truong said.
Moments later, about a dozen adherents set off on the trip to San Francisco.
Participants said only a few of the walkers would walk for the entire 50 days the trip was expected to take, but others were expected to join along the way.
CHINA SEES RECRUITMENT PLOT
Falun Gong, also called Falun Dafa, mixes traditional Chinese exercises with Taoist and Buddhist elements. It shocked the Chinese leadership in 1999 when thousands of followers appeared outside the leadership compound in Beijing to protest increasingly harsh treatment of the group. China banned the movement that year.
China says the group is trying to overthrow the Communist Party and has caused the deaths of at least 1,800 people by suicide or refusal of medical treatment.
A spokesman for the Chinese consulate in San Francisco said such protests were ploys to recruit new members as the group loses credibility in China and abroad.
"We would like to advise them to give up these futile activities because this cult has caused many deaths and caused the breakup of many families in China," the spokesman said.
Falun Gong maintains it is not political and says more than 50,000 adherents have been sent to prisons, labor camps and mental hospitals. Human rights groups estimate some 200 followers have died from torture during detention.
"We want to reach out to the public and tell what is happening in China and to say that we, as Falun Gong practitioners, say there is nothing wrong with practicing your beliefs," said Wang Tongwen, a 34-year-old biologist who plans to walk for two days.
The Seattle march was the latest in a string of protests.
In Washington, D.C., two more people joined a hunger strike in front of the Chinese embassy, bringing the total camping out on Wednesday in the small downtown park to 10.
The strikers, who are drinking water but refusing all food and sleeping in vans, aimed to call attention to the plight of 130 practitioner that Falun Gong says are on a hunger strike in a labor camp in China's northeastern Liaoning province.
So far any attempts to communicate with the embassy or deliver petitions have failed, said Amy Cheng, a housewife and mother of two who came down from Rhode Island on Sunday.
On Tuesday, Falun Gong followers wrapped up a five-day hunger strike in front of the Chinese consulate in New York calling for Teng's release. About 15 people took part, with each fasting for about 48 hours.
Teng, a New York-based doctor who taught traditional Chinese medicine, is one of several U.S.-linked academics detained in China whose cases have been raised by Washington.
In the past several weeks, three detainees have been freed, and some China watchers have said they expect other cases to be settled before Bush makes a scheduled October trip to China.
Ten US-based Falun Gong members, on the fourth day of a hunger strike outside the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC, have vowed to continue their protest ``as long as possible'' in an effort to help free 130 followers held in the Masanjia Labour Camp in northeastern Liaoning province.
The United States has also voiced its concern following reports that 45 Falun Gong activists have recently been jailed for up to 13 years on the mainland.
The Washington hunger strikers accused President Jiang Zemin of masterminding a ``vicious'' crackdown on the sect. They continue to refuse all food and liquids other than pure water, sitting silently while practising breathing exercises in a small park across from the embassy.
Wang Tao, a protest organiser, said: ``We want to let people know that there is an urgent situation [in China] right now.
``Already, 267 Falun Gong practitioners have died from persecution. If we don't do anything, then that number is going to be added to by these 130 practitioners.''
The prisoners in Masanjia have been on a hunger strike for nearly three weeks protesting against the failure to release them on the completion of their terms.
State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the Bush administration found the latest news of Falun Gong sentences ``disturbing''.
``We've raised with China on many occasions our concerns about the crackdown on the Falun Gong and reports of torture and mistreatment of detained and imprisoned practitioners,'' he said.
``We'll continue to call upon China to end its crackdown on the Falun Gong and to respect the fundamental rights of citizens.''
Beijing yesterday escalated its propaganda campaign to discredit the Falun Gong, as Xinhua News Agency reported a sect member had committed suicide in Chongqing municipality. Wang Yongfei, 52, a retired teacher, plunged to her death from her fifth floor flat on August 12, it said.
``This blood debt is owed by Li Hongzhi [the group's US-based founder],''
Xinhua quoted her husband as saying.
A practitioner for five years, Wang had been detained twice for protesting against the official ban on the sect over the past two years.
Hong Kong Falun Gong spokesman Kan Hung-cheung, said the Xinhua report was totally fabricated.
``The official media have always taken the position to slander Falun Gong,''
Two Falun Gong demonstrators were shoved out of the Chinese Embassy in Northwest yesterday after entering the building's lobby to hand-deliver a statement of protest.
The demonstrators, part of a group of Falun Gong practitioners who have been holding a hunger strike protest near the embassy since Friday, entered the lobby at about 1 p.m. They carried a statement they hoped to leave for Chinese Ambassador Yang Jiechi that objected to the "extended illegal imprisonment" of 130 Falun Gong practitioners in the Masanjio labor camp in the Liaoning province of China.
But moments after they were admitted to the controlled-access building, Shean Lin and April Zhang were shoved back toward the exit by an embassy worker who entered the lobby from a side door. The man pushed Mr. Lin several times, speaking loudly in Chinese, before retreating into the embassy. He could be seen through a glass wall picking up a telephone.
When Mr. Lin placed the brown envelope containing the protest statement on a counter in the lobby, the man slammed down the telephone, retrieved the statement, opened the embassy's outer doors and flung the statement onto the sidewalk. The envelope caught a breeze and landed at the man's feet. He picked it up and threw it out again.
"We basically said, 'We want to deliver a letter,' and they started pushing us," said Mr. Lin. "They cursed us and saw the letter and threw it out."
Mr. Lin and Mrs. Zhang were finally escorted out of the embassy by a U.S. State Department official and a sergeant from the U.S. Secret Service Uniformed Division.
Demonstrators captured the incident on videotape.
Across the street, in the park the demonstrators call "Tiananmen Garden," the sergeant suggested to a group of about 30 Falun Gong supporters, including 10 who are participating in the hunger strike, that they mail the protest statement . He warned them they could be arrested if they try to enter the embassy again.
"Let me tell you right now that your members should not be attempting to enter the embassy," the sergeant said. "You're not welcome to come inside and demonstrate. It's that simple."
Embassy spokesman Zhang Yuanyuan said yesterday that demonstrators were not permitted to enter the Chinese Embassy. He called the hunger strike "a political farce put up by a bunch of Falun Gong die-hards."
"We don't recognize the Falun Gong, so we don't recognize their actions outside the embassy," Mr. Yuanyuan said.
The Chinese government banned Falun Gong in July 1999, calling practitioners, who often gather in public places to perform yoga-like exercises, an "evil cult." Dozens of Falun Gong leaders were arrested after weeks of demonstrations throughout China after the ban, and the demonstrators say 265 persons have been tortured and killed since the ban began.
Practitioners say Falun Gong is a meditation sect that emphasizes refining the body and mind through special exercises.
Six practitioners from Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala., decided Wednesday to travel to the District to begin the hunger strike. Four more practitioners have since joined. The protest was inspired by reports that the 130 practitioners imprisoned in the Masanjio labor camp began their own hunger strike almost three weeks ago.
One demonstrator admitted yesterday he was feeling weak from a lack of food but reaffirmed his commitment to continue.
"If I die for the 130 people, it's worth it if they can be saved," said Sam Li, a former Chinese government tax auditor who was imprisoned in China for two months last year for practicing Falun Gong. "We basically just try to endure the hunger. In China they're probably being beaten up right now."
The attempt to deliver the statement was the second since the hunger strike began Friday. Demonstrators first slipped it through the space between the embassy's doors. Moments later, they say, the door was opened and the statement was thrown out.
Chinese justice is a secretive affair. The proceedings in Beijing against a group of alleged Falun Gong followers had been going on for a month but we only heard about it on the final day - when the official Xinhua news agency said that it had been a "public trial." The four sentences that were handed out ranged in length from seven years to life: all were convicted of "intentional homicide" in connection with the suicide attempt staged by supposed sect members in January.
The proceedings on this last "public" day moved very fast. By mid morning the agency was putting out a full report of the verdicts; by late afternoon the official People's Daily had produced its own verdict in the shape of a fierce commentary denouncing the "evil cult."
By the evening, filmed extracts from the trial were being shown on the country's main TV channel. The camera focused on the burn marks on the face of 50-year-old Wang Jindong - the only one of the four who attempted suicide - and then panned to the other defendants.
There were shots of the plastic bottles in which Liu and six other suspected believers carried petrol to Tiananmen Square last January, on the eve of Chinese new year.
A fifth conspirator, who had suggested using Sprite bottles, was "exempted from sentence": the court said she had "acknowledged her crime". The main organiser, Liu Yunfang, received a life sentence; Mr Wang was given 15 years; the other two lesser sentences.
In the brief filmed excerpt, Liu Xiuqin (seven years) smiled slightly as she answered questions. The others looked calm. Mr Wang, we know from earlier reports, went on hunger strike in hospital and said he had no regrets. (His wife and daughter were taken to a reform camp, where after two months they repudiated what he had done.)
Was that a smile of defiance from Ms Liu? Did the defendants refuse to enter a plea and why did the trial take a month? The defence lawyers were appointed by the court. No one is expecting to be briefed by them.
Eight months after the event, the tragic affair, in which a mother and her 12-year-old daughter died, remains as obscure as ever. The trial, unsurprisingly, has clarified nothing.
The Falun Gong abroad continues to insist that the seven who attempted suicide were not genuine members and suggests that it was some kind of set-up job.
It has produced a video that analyses, in slow motion, film released by the Chinese authorities of the incident. Some of it is clearly shot from a rooftop surveillance camera, but there are also close-ups taken by a cameraman on the ground.
The Falun Gong regards this as suspicious, yet it is common practice (not just in China) for police camera operators to be on hand when a public disturbance is anticipated.
It looks from the video as if one of those who set herself on fire (and later died) was hit with some object by a plain-clothes man. This may be true: the police are notoriously heavy-handed, but the fact remains that she had deliberately burned herself.
Is it possible that the authorities had advance warning of the self-immolation plan and let it go ahead, anticipating (correctly) that it would rebound against the Falun Gong?
Perhaps, though the fact that the police were armed with fire extinguishers is not conclusive. Those which were used were small-scale canisters of the type carried in public vehicles - such as the police vans routinely to be seen on the square.
It is hard to believe that Mr Wang and the other six who set themselves alight did so for some other reason: he at least is seen on the video in typical meditative posture. The Falun Gong does not have a formal membership, but it seems likely that they were adherents in some sense.
Were they misled by the obscure pronouncements of the movement's Master, Li Hongzhi (who now operates from the US) into believing that it was time for more drastic action to confront the government's persecution?
Mr Li does not make it easy even for own supporters, who more than once have placed "clarifications" of his words on the Falun Gong website.
Interested readers may like to study his latest statement, dated August 15, which speaks of "getting rid of your human thoughts and truly stepping forward from humanness".
What is clear is that the Chinese government will use the trial to reinforce the message that it communicated to its own people very effectively after the self-immolation.
The Falun Gong is not only an "evil cult", leading people astray, causing many to neglect their families and their own health, and even to commit suicide or murder. It is also a serious threat to "social stability", the lynch pin of a society which fears the opposite - "social disorder" - more than anything else.
In a bizarre attempt to illustrate the point, the Xinhua news agency accompanied its report on the trial with a file picture of Falun Gong supporters allegedly "disturbing public order".
It showed a peaceful demonstration held last month in the city of Taiyuan. Several dozen people are seen sitting quietly on the road in meditative posture, while pedestrians walked freely along the adjacent pavement. It is hardly the most appropriate picture with which to prove the point.
On the contrary, it shows the great courage with which Falun Gong supporters continue to profess their beliefs, knowing they may face brutal treatment, even torture and death, in the reform camps.
Beijing could be in danger of overselling the one-dimensional message which it tries too hard to hammer home.
BEIJING, China -- Beijing has delivered a one-two punch to crush the faltering Falun Gong -- a move which could help isolate the sect's ring-leaders from its rank and file.
According to reports in the Chinese media last Sunday, courts sentenced five members of the outlawed spiritual movement to long prison terms for organizing gatherings of the banned spiritual group
Zhang Xiongwei was sentenced to 13 years for renting rooms used for secret meetings, the Beijing Daily said.
Zhang and the other defendants also were accused of making 2,800 Falun Gong banners and printing 98,000 pamphlets.
They were among 45 people tried by Beijing courts on Falun Gong-related charges in nine separate cases.
The sentencing came two days after four people were meted up to life imprisonment on charges of organizing a January 23 attempt by Falun Gong members to burn themselves to death in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
The stiff punishment is meant to amplify the message that Beijing is determined to uproot the sect, which combines slow-motion exercises and mystical teachings of its founder Li Hongzhi, a former government clerk now in exile in the U.S.
"The leadership is obsessed with the Falun Gong and have put its eradication as a top priority this year," says a mid-level government official. "They think it directly affects social stability."
Says a history professor in Beijing: "Government ministers and local bureaucrats are under pressure to prove their worth in dealing with the Falun Gong by way of the 'responsibility system'."
Local officials, he explains, are held responsible for flare-ups of protest in their turfs.
Since Beijing outlawed the Falun Gong in July 1999, the state media have largely succeeded, at least in the mainland, in portraying it as an "evil cult".
They blamed the group for the deaths of 1,660 people by suicide or refusing medical treatment. They used grisly footage of the self-immolation incident in Tiananmen Square to help stigmatize them and justify the fierce crackdown.
The Falun Gong says its teachings forbid all forms of killing, including suicide and have disputed claims that five people who set themselves on fire were practitioners.
Such court convictions and an incessant propaganda blitz have taken a toll on the group's following.
Once estimated to have up to 100 million followers in China -- more than the Communist Party's 64.5 million -- the group seems to be losing steam lately.
The Falun Gong says it is only a peaceful meditation group Because the sect has no formal membership, it is hard to gauge the number of practitioners.
But if their level of activities is a good gauge, their roster of active members may be dwindling. Until earlier this year, Falun Gong members held almost daily protests in Tiananmen Square. Those have petered out.
So does this spell the death of Falun Gong in China?
Not quite just yet. Public activities may have dwindled, but some members still meet in secret, liaise by Internet and disseminate press releases and spiritual tracts.
"I fear the crackdown may be merely forcing the group underground," says the history professor. All these years, the sect drew millions of devotees in large part because they offer a sense of security and purpose to those who feel lost in the heady reform of the past two decades.
They include multitudes of laid off workers, marginalized farmers, and forgotten pensioners, who fret about jobs and health care that the socialist state could no longer ensure.
Some of these practitioners have turned to the group for a cheap way of self-cure or health regimen. Still others did so in their search for a purpose in life, a spiritual anchor on which to moor their insecure lives.
Now that Communism has hollowed out, these lost souls are turning to religion and to groups like Falun Gong.
As long as Beijing remains bankrupt of ideas and a more attractive ideology that can fill such spiritual void, the appeal of groups like Falun Gong will likely endure.
Indeed the fierce crackdown on Falun Gong could backfire.
While the vilification campaign may isolate its leaders at home and abroad from its rank-and-file followers in the mainland, it has made Falun Gong a hot-button issue outside China.
The high-handed campaign has given the group the worldwide media attention that it would not have deserved.
Washington and other capitals have put Falun Gong on its talking-point agenda with Beijing as a religious-freedom issue. By trying to demonize its founder Li Hongzhi, Beijing has merely turned him into a political icon.
In this context, Falun Gong is far from finished.
WASHINGTON - The United States is disturbed by reports that Chinese courts have sentenced as many as 45 members of the Falun Gong spiritual sect to up to 13 years in prison, the State Department said Monday.
Spokesman Philip Reeker said the sentences were handed down for activities such as helping organize protests, manufacturing banners and printing leaflets. The Falun Gong has been outlawed in China since 1999.
Reeker suggested that the Chinese action may be in violation of the freedom of expression provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China has signed.
``We've raised with China on many occasions our concerns about the crackdown on the Falun Gong, and reports of torture and mistreatment of detained and imprisoned practitioners. And we're going to continue to raise those issues,'' Reeker said.
He said China's failure to respect freedom of thought and conscience was documented in the most recent State Department report on human rights conditions worldwide.
Eight followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement have launched a hunger strike in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, appealing for the release of practitioners held by Beijing, organisers said. The group set up camp in a small park across the road from the embassy and hung banners protesting against the Government crackdown that read "SOS!" and "Justice for Falun Gong".
The protesters said they started their hunger strike on Friday to press for the release of an estimated 130 Falun Gong members from a labour camp in Liaoning province. The Liaoning practitioners launched a hunger strike three weeks ago. "We hope we can help," said Shean Lin, 30, of Birmingham, Alabama.
The group said the effort was a "small reflection" of what Falun Gong followers were going through in China.
The protesters, who held prayer sessions outside the embassy and tried - unsuccessfully - to deliver their demands to the ambassador, said they would only drink water and planned to sleep in their cars.
They vowed to continue the hunger strike for as long as possible.
"I will do my best," said Jinwei Wang, 19, who lives in the Washington area and whose parents are also taking part in the protest.
BEIJING - Chinese courts have sentenced five Falun Gong members to up to 13 years in prison for arranging gatherings of the banned spiritual group, a state newspaper said Sunday.
The report came two days after four people were sentenced to prison on charges of organizing a Jan. 23 attempt by Falun Gong members to burn themselves to death in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
The cases are part of stepped-up efforts to destroy the group, which Chinese authorities banned in 1999 as a threat to communist power.
Those convicted of organizing gatherings in the Chinese capital were among 45 people tried by Beijing courts on Falun Gong-related charges in nine separate cases, the Beijing Daily said.
The report didn't say whether the other 40 defendants were convicted or when the verdicts were handed down. Officials of the four courts cited by the newspaper were not available for comment on Sunday. The courts were separate from the one where defendants accused in the group suicide attempt were tried.
Zhang Xiongwei was sentenced to 13 years in prison for renting rooms used for secret meetings, the Beijing Daily said. Convicted with him was Li Suqin, who received three years.
Also sentenced were Yang Jiguang, who received 12 years in prison, the Beijing Daily said. Shao Qiang and Qui Xiuxing received 10-year terms.
The report didn't give any other details about the defendants.
Falun Gong drew millions of followers during the 1990s with its blend of light exercise, meditation and the Buddhist- and Taoist-inspired teachings of its founder, former government grain clerk Li Hongzhi.
Falun Gong supporters say more than 250 members have died in custody. Human rights groups have accused the government of torture and other abuses, though authorities deny mistreating detainees.
Public activities have dwindled, but some members still meet in secret and print spiritual tracts.
Zhang and the other defendants also were accused of making 2,800 Falun Gong banners and printing 98,000 pamphlets, the Beijing Daily said.
Until earlier this year, Falun Gong members held almost daily protests in Tiananmen Square. Those died out as authorities stepped up their crackdown.
BEIJING - Chinese courts have jailed 45 alleged Falun Gong organisers for up to 13 years for helping the spiritual movement battle an intense government effort to wipe it out, an official newspaper reported on Sunday.
The Beijing Daily said they were sentenced in Beijing over the past few days for organising protests, making banners and printing leaflets in defiance of a government campaign against a movement it outlawed and declared an "evil cult" in 1999.
The newspaper said the heaviest sentence was imposed on Zhang Hongli, jailed for 13 years on charges of renting a safe house, organising the manufacture of banners and printing Falun Gong leaflets.
Others were sentenced for their roles in what were once almost daily protests in Tiananmen Square, China's political heart, which are now rare.
The Beijing Daily said Shao Qiang and Qiu Xiuxin were each jailed for 10 years for making banners and organising people to try to raise them in the square, where a heavy police presence meant few such attempts were successful.
It gave no personal details of those sentenced beyond calling them "diehards," but when the Communist Party began its crackdown on Falun Gong, it found adherents almost everywhere.
In the party's war against Falun Gong organisers have been jailed while recalcitrant followers have generally been sent without trial to labour camps.
The Communist Party accuses Falun Gong, which stunned the leadership with a mass protest outside its central Beijing compound in April 1999, of aspiring to overthrow it. Falun Gong denies any political aims.
The movement says more than 50,000 followers have been jailed, sent to labour camps or mental institutions in the crackdown. It alleges many are tortured, some to death.
The government has acknowledged several deaths in custody, but ascribed them to suicide or illnesses.
It has declared victory over Falun Gong several times and its intense campaign appears to have ended what were once daily protests in Tiananmen Square.
However, the movement has become more and more active overseas in a mounting campaign for international backing against China's crackdown.
In the latest action, eight followers launched a hunger strike in front of the Chinese embassy in Washington D.C. to appeal for the release of practitioners held in China.
The eight said they launched the protest on Friday to press for the release of 130 members who began a hunger strike at a labour camp in the northeastern province of Liaoning three weeks ago.
There has been no official comment in China on the hunger strike.
BEIJING - Flanked by police officers in a brightly lit courtroom, four suspected members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual sect were sentenced to prison Friday for organizing a mass suicide attempt last year on Tiananmen Square, state media and a court official said.
A mother and her 12-year-old daughter died in the group self-immolation. China used the event to support its claim that Falun Gong is an evil cult and to justify a brutal crackdown.
Beijing's No. 1 Intermediate Court found the four guilty of murder for ``organizing, masterminding, instigating and assisting'' Falun Gong followers in setting themselves afire, the Xinhua News Agency said.
Liu Yunfang, 57, a former factory worker, was sentenced to life in prison for producing pamphlets teaching that Falun Gong followers could reach spiritual fulfillment by burning themselves, Xinhua said.
Another suspected sect follower, Wang Jindong, 50, was convicted of distributing Liu's pamphlets and given a 15-year sentence, Xinhua said.
Two others, Liu Xiuqin, 34, and Xue Hongjun, 49, were sentenced to seven and 10 years respectively for helping organize the incident, Xinhua said.
Liu Baorong, a woman tried as a conspirator, was not sentenced, Xinhua said. It cited her lesser involvement, cooperation with prosecutors and ``acknowledgment of her crime committed under Falun Gong's incitement, bullying and mind control,'' Xinhua said.
A court official, who gave only her surname, Lu, confirmed the sentences but declined to give further details.
Of those sentenced, authorities said, only Wang Jindong actually set himself on fire in the Jan. 23 suicide attempt. He was one of five people who doused themselves with gasoline and ignited it.
After the self immolations, state television repeatedly aired gory footage captured by security cameras in a campaign to galvanize public opinion against the group.
Falun Gong drew millions of followers during the 1990s with its blend of light exercise, meditation and the Buddhist- and Taoist-inspired teachings of its founder, former government grain clerk Li Hongzhi.
China banned the group in June 1999, apparently fearing its size and organizational ability could challenge the Communist Party's monopoly on political power.
Until the incident, Falun Gong followers had staged protests against the ban almost daily in Tiananmen Square. Such demonstrations have largely died out since a renewed crackdown on followers, and thousands have been detained in labor camps. Rights groups claim torture and psychological abuse are used routinely to make followers renounce the group, though China denies harming sect believers.
On Friday, state television's main evening news broadcast showed the accused, wearing civilian clothes and flanked by police officers, as they listened to their sentences. Wang Jindong's face and lips were scarred from his burn wounds but he appeared otherwise healthy. Liu Xiuqin smiled slightly and appeared to be speaking softly to herself.
Newspaper reports said Liu Yunfang claimed that, while doing the group's meditation techniques, he saw his spirit setting itself ablaze on the square and ``his `Buddha body' spraying fire from the mouth.''
Xue told other followers in the central city of Kaifeng about Liu's vision and, with others, organized the group suicide on Lunar New Year's Eve, the reports said.
Liu had planned to take part but changed his mind, they said. Police who detained him on the square reported finding two bottles of gasoline strapped to his body.
State media have offered contradicting accounts of the incident, and foreign reporters have had no access to the victims or alleged organizers.
Falun Gong representatives in the United States, where their founder lives, claim the five could not have been genuine practitioners because the sect's teachings forbid all killing, including suicide.
Supporters of the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong have reacted angrily to the sentencing in China of four people linked to a mass suicide bid earlier this year.
Tom O'Byrne reports authorities have used the rare self-immolation incident in Beijing earlier this year to justify its harsh crackdown against the group.
The official Xinhua news agency announced the four people had aided and abetted the group of five Falun Gong practitioners who tried to commit suicide in Tiananmen Square in January. Two succeeded; the others survived but remain badly injured. The court handed down sentences ranging from seven years to life in jail for the four accomplices. The government then allowed the suicides to be broadcast unedited on Chinese television as a way of justifying its on-going crackdown against the group. Supporters outside China, though, maintain that thousands of practitioners are being mal-treated in labour camps, and over 2-hundred have died in custody. They continue to press for international support in their battle to overturn a ban on their activities in China. Tom O'Byrne Beijing.
China's decision Friday to hand out long prison terms to members of the Falungong is just the latest blow in a bitter and violent two-year onslaught against the spiritual movement.
Beijing's No. 1 Intermediate People's Court sentenced four people it said organized a mass suicide attempt on Tiananmen Square in January to between seven years and life in jail.
The Falungong, also called the Falun Dafa, was founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, a former member of the People's Liberation Army who now lives in New York.
Through most of the decade, the Chinese government opted to tolerate the movement, apparently seeing it as just another slightly exotic meditation group like many others formed under the more liberal social conditions of the reform era.
The group, which promised better health through a series of mystical exercises, appeared to strike a chord with many Chinese, and at one point it claimed to have 100 million followers inside and outside the country.
Gradually, however, frictions between the Falungong and the authorities appeared to multiply, as officials became aware that the group had become a powerful focus of allegiance to many of its adherents.
This culminated on April 25, 1999, when about 10,000 Falungong members staged a silent protest in front of Zhongnanhai, the Chinese government headquarters in the heart of Beijing, over alleged attacks.
President Jiang Zemin was particularly angered by this affront and eventually called for a crackdown, according to reports.
In the weeks that followed, official policies sharpened and ended in a nationwide sweep beginning on July 20 in which thousands of members were arrested.
The Chinese government announced two days later that the Falungong had been outlawed and blasted it as a "heretical cult", employing a phrase that has been used to denounce dissent since imperial times.
Throughout the second half of the year, Falungong members staged high-profile protests on Beijing's Tiananmen Square to protest the ban, with thousands of followers being arrested in often violent scuffles.
Last year also saw frequent Falungong demonstrations, as adherents picked important dates such as April 25, one year after the Zhongnanhai protest, and July 22, the anniversary of the ban on the movement.
The stakes were raised on January 23, 2001, the eve of the Chinese New Year, when five alleged Falungong followers set themselves alight on Tiananmen Square.
The suicide bid, which was reported extensively by the official media, appeared to trigger widespread public anger against the group, especially after a woman and her 12-year-old daughter died from their horrible burns.
Since then, public Falungong demonstrations seem to have become less frequent on Tiananmen, although the group and its exiled leader Li still claim a powerful following.
Meanwhile, there has been no let-up in the government's harsh policies on the group, as it continues its anti-Falungong media barrage, while meting out heavy punishments to its members.
Since the Falungong was banned, tens of thousands of practitioners have been sent to "re-education through labor" camps and hundreds have been given prison sentences.
A total of 156 have died in police custody, according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy.
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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