The Chinese government says two men had been arrested on suspicion of organizing the mass suicide attempt by alleged followers of the banned Falungong movement on Beijing's Tiananmen Square last month. Xinhua news agency says they and another man who was badly burned in the January 23 suicide attempt and is still in hospital, are suspected of directly organizing the self-immolation.
Out of the five who managed to douse themselves with petrol and set themselves on fire on January 23, a 36-year-old woman died of her injuries.
Others, including the woman's 12-year-old daughter, survived with severe burns injuries.
The government has unleashed a fierce propaganda campaign against the Falungong in the wake of the suicide attempt.
The government has seized upon the incident as evidence Falungong is an evil cult and used it to gain public support for its often brutal crackdown on the sect, which was banned in July 1999.
China yesterday dismissed reports of the torture and death of Falun Gong practitioners in custody, claiming detainees were treated like patients in the hands of doctors. "They are treated like teachers treat their students . . . the same as doctors treating patients or parents with their children," said Liu Jing, the senior Communist Party official heading the crackdown on the movement Beijing brands an evil cult.
Mr Liu accused the United States of making "wanton accusations" about China's crackdown and of "turning a blind eye to the danger and harm caused by [Falun Gong leader] Li Hongzhi and a deaf ear to the heretical fallacies preached by Li Hongzhi". He denied reports that more than 100 followers had died in custody.
Mr Liu, head of the State Council Office for Prevention and Handling of Cults, set up last November, compared the office's efforts to the fight against drug addiction and trafficking. "The Falun Gong cult is the same as a spiritual drug," he said. "It does as much harm to its practitioners as drugs. These people are in a different mental state from ordinary people."
Mr Liu appealed for understanding on how the practitioners were treated. He said visiting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, who has spoken up about the treatment of Falun Gong supporters, "had too little understanding of the Falun Gong cult".
So far, 324 hardened members of the group had been tried and sentenced by courts, Mr Liu said. He would neither confirm nor deny reports by rights groups that about 120 members had died in police custody or that more than 10,000 had been sentenced without trial to labour camps.
Mr Liu blamed Li Hongzhi for the fate of Falun Gong practitioners who committed suicide, including the one who died when five set themselves alight in Tiananmen Square.
Mr Liu said 136 followers had killed themselves at the instigation of the cult's leader.
The People's Daily on Monday called for the elimination of the Falun Gong cult and rewarded 110 organisations and 271 people for helping to "wipe out the cancer of Falun Gong".
Mrs Robinson expressed confidence China was poised to take steps to improve its human rights image as she left after a series of meetings and the first UN human rights workshop held in China.
Officials sought to assure her that they were taking steps to ratify two UN conventions, abolish re-education-through-labour camps and allow UN rapporteurs to investigate compliance with two international treaties China has signed, including one on torture.
Mrs Robinson said prisoners in labour camps had not benefited from due process before being locked up.
However, she said the Chinese had indicated a willingness to review the issue of torture and the length of some sentences.
During her visit, international experts brought in by the UN took part in a workshop to look at how China could better deal with minor crimes, which are handled under the re-education-through-labour system.
Mrs Robinson, stressing the absence of freedom of religion, association or expression, repeated her comments from previous visits in saying "there is a very serious human rights situation in China".
BEIJING - China has arrested two alleged members of the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual group for planning self-immolations on Tiananmen Square last Chinese New Year's eve, state television reported on Wednesday.
The two men from the central city of Kaifeng -- Liu Yun and Xue Hongjun -- were arrested on Saturday and accused of plotting the fiery January 23 group suicide attempt, which left one woman dead and four people badly injured, it said.
Liu, 57, had planned to commit self-immolation but was stopped by police with another woman on the square. Xue did not go to Tiananmen, but had abetted the self-immolators before they left Kaifeng, state television said.
The report identified Wang Jindong, who was still in hospital recovering from serious burns fom the suicide attempt, as a "criminal suspect" for organising the fiery protest.
The television report said they were inspired by exiled Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi. China banned Falun Gong as an "evil cult" in 1999 and has detained thousands of followers in a ruhtless crackdown on the spiritual movement.
The arrests were announced a day after China's cabinet defended the crackdown in the face of international condemnation of violations of religious freedom and civil liberties.
"The Falun Gong cult is the same as a spiritual drug," Liu Jing, head of a new cabinet anti-cult office, told a news conference. "It does as much harm to its practitioners, especially the devout ones, as drugs."
Liu said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson did not understand the dangers of Falun Gong and the United States was using the issue to interfere in China's internal affairs.
Robinson had urged China to ban "re-education through labour" camps which Beijing has used to incarcerate thousands of Falun Gong followers, as well as dissidents and prostitutes.
The United States, which has proposed a resolution censuring Beijing at a U.N. rights meeting in Geneva next month, condemned alleged abuses of Falun Gong followers in a human rights report which said the rights situation in China had worsened in 2000.
Falun Gong, which is based on elements of Taoism, Buddhism and traditional Chinese meditation and exercises, has denied that the five self-immolators belonged to the movement.
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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