HONG KONG - Members of the controversial Falun Gong spiritual movement are considering legal action against some Chinese leaders including President Jiang Zemin and Hong Kong police officers for what they call "persecution."
Kan Hung-cheung, a leader of the movement in Hong Kong, revealed the possible moves on Friday, a day after 16 Falun Gong members were fined in Hong Kong for public obstruction and other offences during a demonstration against China in March.
He said the 16 were considering filing a civil suit in Hong Kong to seek compensation from the police officers responsible for the decision to arrest them during the March protest.
"They were unlawful arrests," Kan told Reuters. "Theoretically we can claim compensation for unlawful acts through a civil suit."
"We've held preliminary talks with our lawyers. We'll talk further to study its feasibility," he said. "If we do it, we'll do it as soon as possible." He gave no timetable.
Kan said a group of Falun Gong followers from different parts of the world might also sue Jiang and other Chinese leaders for their suppression of the spiritual movement.
In a case that has raised fears about personal freedoms here under Chinese rule, a local court on Thursday fined 16 members, including four Swiss, one New Zealander and two U.S. residents from Hong Kong, for public obstruction. Some were further fined for willfully obstructing and assaulting police.
It was the first time that members of the controversial spiritual movement had been prosecuted in Hong Kong, where personal rights under previous laws were retained after China took the territory back from Britain in 1997.
"Switzerland gives great importance to the freedom of expression and we are therefore quite surprised by the verdict," a spokeswoman for the Swiss consulate in Hong Kong said.
Few newspapers in Hong Kong gave the story prominent coverage, with at least one not reporting the judgement at all.
However, the Asian Wall Street Journal opined: "If (the) government wishes to uphold Hong Kong's status as a stable base for the international business community, it would make sense to focus... more on preserving the impartiality of the police and judiciary."
The Ming Pao daily said it was hardly credible or acceptable to the public that a small group of protesters should be punished for obstruction.
"This is harmful to Hong Kong's international image. The charges should never have been laid," the newspaper said.
All 16 defendants have said they would appeal.
Falun Gong is outlawed in mainland China but remains legal in Hong Kong. Beijing promised the former British colony a high degree of autonomy after it reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.
HONG KONG - Hui Yee-han and her young daughter were performing their slow-motion Falun Gong exercises in a Hong Kong park one morning when an old man berated her for corrupting her child.
His reaction reflected a growing fear here that the spiritual movement's defiance of Beijing could prompt a crackdown and threaten the freedoms Hong Kong enjoys as a special territory inside China.
"He told me it was fine if I wanted to practice Falun Gong, but I shouldn't bring my child with me," said Hui, a housewife.
Falun Gong is an eclectic combination of meditative exercises and elements from Taoism and Buddhism. Some of its followers believe that strict adherence to its teachings can keep illness at bay.
The movement only began in 1992, but now claims 100 million members in China and a following of "tens of millions" in at least 50 countries around the world.
Hong Kong and nearby Macau are the only parts of China where it remains legal.
China outlawed the group in 1999 after its ability to muster mass protests in the heart of Beijing raised the spectre of popular discontent against the Communist Party's rule.
Pro-democracy groups fear the Hong Kong government, under pressure from Beijing, may use Falun Gong as an excuse to speed up enactment of an anti-subversion law, which Hong Kong is required to do under its constitution.
Rights activists fear such a law may be used arbitrarily to crush anyone Beijing does not agree with.
On Thursday, a Hong Kong court convicted 16 Falun Gong members of obstruction and other offences during a protest against Beijing, a ruling likely to spark fresh concern about freedoms in the territory.
"I think the judgment is justified. They (Falun Gong followers) have been trouble makers. I agree there should be religious freedoms, but what they do affects other people and disturbs peace in society," said clerk Ally Wong, 24.
Legal but dangerous
While Falun Gong followers may gather and practice in public places, hold conferences and even protests in Hong Kong, they say they are up against more subtle restrictions.
"It's obvious that the space for us (to practice) is being squeezed, from booking of venues, to being prosecuted and it's absurd that people who come to visit are turned away," Han said.
It is not uncommon now to see foreign Falun Gong members being turned away by immigration authorities and bundled on to the next departing flight or ferry, especially around sensitive periods when Chinese leaders are visiting.
The sixteen sentenced followers, four of them Swiss, were charged and tried for public obstruction during a protest they held outside Beijing's main representative office in March.
It was the first time Falun Gong members had been prosecuted in this southern Chinese territory, sparking questions about the wide-ranging freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in July 1997.
Hong Kong's constitution guarantees religious freedom to its 6.8 million people and a high-level of autonomy. Beijing is responsible only for Hong Kong's defence and foreign affairs.
Fighting for freedoms or troublemakers?
Many people in Hong Kong have begun to see the 500 or so Falun Gong followers here as troublemakers that the territory would be better off without.
Hui says the reprimand she received from the old man underlined the success of anti-Falun Gong rhetoric from the governments in Beijing and Hong Kong in recent years.
"I blame the Chinese government and all the negative (press) reports. I think people are being misled," Hui said.
The group in Hong Kong has not been able to get a local publisher to print their materials or books in recent years and more than 40 applications since mid 2001 to book public venues for Falun Gong conferences have been turned down, Hui said.
Public reception of the movement, however, has not been all bad. Strangers have approached the group to express support or ask for their literature, Hui said.
Senior Chinese officials and academics say quick passage of the new anti-subversion law is necessary to prevent anyone from using Hong Kong as a base to subvert the mainland.
"If they are pronounced not guilty (on Thursday), there may be people in Beijing and Hong Kong who will say the more effective way to curb the movement would be through an anti-subversion law," Law Yuk-kai of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor told Reuters on Wednesday before the verdict.
Last year, leader Tung Chee-hwa echoed the words of Beijing when he called the group an "evil cult", but ruled out any measures to curb the movement immediately.
Falun Gong claims that more than 1,600 followers have died as a result of abuse in police custody or mainland detention centres since the ban in 1999.
HONG KONG - Sixteen Falun Gong followers were convicted Thursday of causing an obstruction during a protest outside the Chinese government's liaison office here - in a case rights activists called a threat to Hong Kong's freedoms.
It was the first time Hong Kong had brought criminal charges against members of Falun Gong, which is outlawed as an "evil cult" in mainland China but remains legal in this former British colony, which was returned to China in 1997.
Magistrate Symon Wong convicted the defendants, including four Swiss and one New Zealand citizen, of all counts. He then imposed fines ranging from 1,300 Hong Kong dollars (U.S. dlrs 167) to 3,800 Hong Kong dollars (U.S. dlrs 487) but did not jail anybody.
Several Falun Gong followers stood to protest their innocence as Wong left the courtroom, but he ignored them.
"The verdict once more shows the pressure from mainland China," said one of the Swiss defendants, Erich Bachmann. "The people are now being persecuted in Hong Kong."
All defendants were found guilty of causing a public obstruction and acting in a way that could cause a public obstruction.
Nine of them, including eight Hong Kong Chinese and New Zealand citizen Jenny Lee, were convicted of the more serious charge of obstructing the police who broke up the demonstration on March 14. Three of the Hong Kong people were convicted of assaulting a police officer.
The defendants showed little emotion as Wong read out the verdicts in the Western Magistracy, ending a trial that began in June.
Rights activists and opposition lawmakers accused Hong Kong of appeasing Beijing by bringing the prosecution. Falun Gong spokesman Kan Hung-cheung promised an appeal.
Falun Gong frequently protests in Hong Kong against the mainland's suppression that the group claims has left hundreds of followers dead, creating an uneasy situation for Hong Kong.
Free speech rights were guaranteed for 50 years when Hong Kong was returned from Britain to China, but pro-Beijing figures here have demanded action against Falun Gong.
One staunch Beijing ally praised the verdicts and said Hong Kong's civil liberties were not in jeopardy.
"If the Falun Gong people disturb the central government's office here and if the court finds them guilty, we all have to respect the verdicts," said Ma Lik, a local deputy to the Chinese National People's Congress and secretary-general of Hong Kong's biggest pro-Beijing political party.
"Everyone, when they enjoy the freedom of speech, they must also respect other people's interests," Ma said by telephone.
The magistrate said the case had nothing to do Falun Gong. He said the defendants showed no regard for the public when they demonstrated and he noted police did not try to stop the protest but merely ordered the practitioners to move several steps away from the front of the Chinese office.
Falun Gong contends its followers did not block the sidewalk and defense attorneys argued police who later sealed off the area were the only ones causing any obstruction.
Hong Kong dismissed accusations it sought to stifle Falun Gong, saying anybody here can protest within the law.
The fines Wong imposed were less than the maximum, which was 5,000 Hong Kong dollars (U.S. dlrs 640) on some counts. The most serious count, obstructing police, could have carried a jail term of up to two years.
The Swiss defendants are Bachmann, from Kreuzlingen; Roland Isenschmid and Claudia Simone Schlegel-Grunenfelder, from Bern; and Lam Duy Quoc, from Zollikofen.
A Swiss consular official, Annegret Zimmermann, called the verdicts surprising.
"The Swiss government puts a lot of importance on the freedom of expression," Zimmermann said outside the court.
Chinese authorities kidnapped, tortured and killed Zhizhen Dai's husband for being a Falun Gong follower. Stephen Moss meets her.
Zhizhen Dai stares unflinchingly into the camera, while her two-year-old daughter, Fadu, fidgets and plays up to the photographer. This is an adventure for Fadu, part of an incomprehensible round-the-world journey. For Dai, 39, it is an obsession. She has become the mouthpiece for her murdered husband. She is determined that the world knows why he died.
Dai was born in China but left to study in Australia in 1987 and became a citizen in 1992.
"In my heart I was always searching for something," she says. "Chinese history is very sad and I didn't want my life to repeat my parents' life."
But she failed to find whatever truths she was seeking in the West and returned to China in 1993, where she became a follower of Falun Gong, the blend of exercise, meditation, morality ("fa" means law) and religious belief that swept the country in the '90s, attracting up to 100 million adherents.
Falun Gong, she says, made her a different person - caring, compassionate, at ease. She also fell in love with a man called Chengyong Chen, whose father's life-threatening kidney complaint had miraculously cleared up when he began to practise Falun Gong.
The "miracle" had turned both Chen and his sister, Chengyan, into believers. Dai met Chen at a Falun Gong meeting in 1997 and they were married soon afterwards.
The couple lived in Guangzhou city, close to Hong Kong. Chen had worked for 10 years as an electrician at a state-owned paper mill. His sister had worked there for 18 years. In the '90s the Chinese Government tolerated Falun Gong, but as the sect grew, the Communist Party became suspicious of a possible challenge to its power. In June, 1999, the government branded the nascent religion counter-revolutionary and banned it. Chen and his sister were about to be thrust into the political front line.
"When the persecution started in 1999, my husband went to Beijing to protest and tell the Chinese Government how much our family had benefited from practising Falun Gong," says Dai. "He was immediately arrested and put into jail for 15 days. In jail, the police beat him and asked other criminals to beat him. The same happened to my husband's sister because she had gone to Beijing to protest, too. She was put into the underground jail in Beijing and then transferred to a jail in Guangzhou for 15 days." Both were released, but the persecution was only beginning.
"The boss of my husband's company was ordered by the government to dismiss practitioners of Falun Gong," says Dai. "If they refused, the bosses themselves would be sacked. My husband and my husband's sister would not give up their beliefs, so they were both fired."
Still, they would not recant and the office responsible for the suppression of Falun Gong in Guangzhou was becoming increasingly heavy-handed.
"In July, 2000, my husband was kidnapped, at the same time as my husband's sister," Dai says. "We were living in different districts, but both were kidnapped by the same order of Guangzhou city and they disappeared at the same time. We didn't know if he was alive or dead. Three weeks later he was allowed to come home. He had been subjected to brainwashing. For seven days he had not been allowed to sleep - not a single minute's sleep. He was forced to watch propaganda. When he became tired, they kicked him and beat him and poured water on him - anything to keep him awake. They said that if he didn't give up Falun Gong, it would happen to him again."
Chen took the threat seriously and spent little time at home after that. But in December, 2000, he took his wife and baby daughter to Beijing to protest against the continuing persecution, which had seen hundreds killed - mostly under torture - and thousands detained in prisons and mental hospitals. The journey to Beijing was to be his final act of protest.
"My husband unfurled a banner in Tiananmen Square," says Dai, whose eyes have filled with tears several times during her account. "He was immediately arrested and taken to Tiananmen police station. That day, more than 100 followers of Falun Gong were arrested and taken there. He refused to give his name or say where he was from, because previously that had caused problems for his family, his workplace and the residents' committee.
"He was sent to the Yian Qin detention centre near Beijing, where he was tortured. He was badly beaten and tortured with electrodes - they wanted to know what his name was and where he was from. His condition was very poor and they were worried that he would die, so they released him and he came back to find baby and I, who were staying in a hotel in Beijing.
"We took the train back to Guangzhou and four days later he was kidnapped again. That was the last we heard from him. Six months later (in July, 2001) his body was found in an abandoned hut in a suburb of Guangzhou. My husband's sister identified the body. My husband's father could not stand the shock of the news and died soon afterwards." Dai was not in China when her husband's body was found. China does not permit dual nationality. When she was given an Australian passport she had to renounce Chinese citizenship and, early in 2001, the government had told her it would not renew her visa. "It was difficult to leave the country when he was missing," she says, "but the visa had run out. I was still hoping he would come back."
She was forced to return to Australia, where she learned of her husband's death on a Falun Gong website. Her sister-in-law is now serving a two-year sentence in a Guangzhou labour camp. She is not allowed access to her family and was not permitted to see her dying father or attend his funeral.
Dai wanted to collect her husband's ashes and tried to get back into China, but she was refused a visa. It was at this point that she began her campaign to expose Chinese persecution.
"I carried my baby everywhere to try to get help," she says, "and eight months later the Australian Foreign Affairs Department collected the ashes and brought them back. When I went to pick them up, I called local media stations and told them I needed their help to let all Australians know that the Chinese Government was killing innocent people for their beliefs."
She says her story is not extraordinary. "This has happened to thousands of families, and they don't have a chance to speak out," she says. "I went to the UN in Geneva and asked for its help. More than 1000 followers of Falun Gong have died - my husband was just one of them. Speaking out is the only way that this can be stopped."
HONG KONG - A magistrate is set to pass judgment on 16 Falun Gong followers charged with obstruction in a protest outside the Chinese government liaison office here, and critics warned Tuesday that Hong Kong's freedoms could suffer.
Opposition lawmakers and human rights activists call the prosecution of the Falun Gong practitioners, including four Swiss and one New Zealand citizen, a politically motivated, blatant attempt by Hong Kong's government to please Beijing.
"They want to stretch the law and bend it to their politics, to satisfy the wishes of the Chinese officials stationed in Hong Kong, to save them from this kind of embarrassment," said Law Yuk-kai, director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, a non-governmental organization.
The Falun Gong practitioners say they did nothing wrong when they demonstrated outside the Chinese office on March 14 - and dozens of members of the meditation sect have been marching and refusing food this week to protest the verdicts to be announced Thursday morning.
The demonstration in March attacked China's attempts to eradicate Falun Gong in the mainland, where it is banned as an "evil cult." The protesters were arrested in a scuffle with Hong Kong police after ignoring warnings to move their demonstration away from the front of the building.
Nine of the defendants face the more serious charge of obstructing police and three are accused of assaulting police - in Hong Kong's first-ever criminal case against Falun Gong practitioners.
Falun Gong has characterized the case as nothing more than trumped-up charges seeking to stifle Falun Gong without directly attacking its message. The group remains legal in Hong Kong, a former British colony which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 but still retains many Western-style civil liberties.
Magistrate Symon Wong finished hearing arguments last week, following a drawn-out trial that began in June, and said he would deliver verdicts on Thursday morning.
Police say the Falun Gong followers were arrested only because they were causing an obstruction. The demonstration blocked only part of a sidewalk, however, in a city where congestion is commonplace.
"If this demonstration has to be censored by the law, then no other demonstrations could proceed properly," said Law, the human rights campaigner. "Any demonstration involving people would necessarily occupy space."
Falun Gong said its demonstrations in Hong Kong are intended only to urge Beijing to end the often bloody crackdown carried out by the government of Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
"Instead of putting our practitioners in front of the court for making a peaceful and reasonable petition, Jiang Zemin should be put before the court for his brutal attack on Falun Gong," said local Falun Gong spokesman Kan Hung-cheung.
Although Falun Gong is free to practice in Hong Kong, its demonstrations have proven troublesome to the government.
Hong Kong has been allowed a great deal of autonomy since returning to Chinese rule, and the local government is careful not to offend Beijing. Some critics fear it is bending too far, effectively surrendering the territory's cherished freedoms.
"To what extent Beijing plays a part in this we can never prove, but Hong Kong is being too accommodating," said opposition lawmaker Cyd Ho.
HONG KONG - Falun Gong practitioners demonstrated in Hong Kong on Monday, charging that Beijing had pressured the territory into bringing criminal charges against 16 followers who will receive verdicts this week.
"We are protesting against the regime's attempt to harm the traditional freedom and rule of law in Hong Kong," the practitioners said.
The defendants, including four Swiss and one New Zealand citizen, were tried for obstruction during a protest outside the Chinese government liaison office here in March.
Nine face the more serious charge of obstructing police, while three are accused of assaulting police. Magistrate Symon Wong finished hearing arguments last week and said he would issue verdicts Thursday morning.
Falun Gong issued a statement Monday accusing Chinese President Jiang Zemin of exporting China's suppression of the group to Hong Kong, where Falun Gong is legal and free to practice. Mainland China has outlawed the meditation group as an "evil cult" and is seeking to eradicate it.
Falun Gong said about 20 of its followers turned out in a downtown park Monday. They accused Jiang of "bringing dictatorship to Hong Kong, introducing lies and vicious acts to the people of Hong Kong," the statement said.
Local rights activists have expressed concerns that Hong Kong's first-ever criminal charges against Falun Gong followers are part of a worrying shift away from the traditional freedoms enjoyed by citizens of this former British colony.
The government insists free speech and the right to protest are not being threatened.
Police arrested the Falun Gong followers on March 14 after they refused repeated orders to move their protest several steps away from the front of the Chinese government office, which had complained about the alleged obstruction.
Falun Gong insists there was no obstruction caused by its followers, although police later blocked off the whole sidewalk.
Chinese Embassy complaints to the Speaker's Office about a Falun Gong art exhibition have fallen on deaf ears.
The embassy on Wednesday objected to a one-day exhibition of paintings in Parliament by an artist who belongs to the spiritual movement, which is banned in China.
The Chinese claim Falun Gong is an evil political cult that promotes harmful practices.
The exhibition, which included information about Falun Gong, was displayed on the ground floor of the Beehive yesterday.
Speaker Jonathan Hunt said the second secretary at the Chinese Embassy had expressed disapproval.
But Mr Hunt said he had given the go-ahead as New Zealand was a democratic country and different points of view were entitled to be aired.
The exhibition was sponsored by Green MP Keith Locke.
The Chinese Embassy in Wellington did not respond yesterday to Herald inquiries.
Auckland Airport last month bowed to pressure from the Chinese Government and removed a display promoting Falun Gong.
The embassy had said it was offensive to Chinese travellers.
In May, a banner on Queen St advertising the Dalai Lama's Auckland visit raised the ire of Chinese diplomats.
That was taken down.
The Falun Gong movement was formed in 1992 by Li Hongzhi and has followers in more than 40 countries.
Organisers say that since China outlawed Falun Gong, more than 50,000 followers have been jailed, sent to labour camps or put in mental institutions.
They also say many have been tortured, some to death.
The Chinese Government has acknowledged several deaths in custody.
But it says these were as a result of suicide or illness.
HONG KONG - Wrapping up their arguments in Hong Kong's first criminal trial of Falun Gong members, defense lawyers said Wednesday that the territory's laws guaranteed the right to protest outside China's government office here.
The trial of 16 Falun Gong members - including four Swiss - on public obstruction charges has raised worries that Hong Kong is curbing human rights and clamping down on the sect, which is banned in mainland China but allowed here.
The Falun Gong members were arrested during a March 14 protest outside the Chinese government liaison office. The Swiss had been refused entry to mainland China and joined the Hong Kong demonstration instead.
In his summation, defense lawyer John Haynes argued that in making the arrests, police had encroached on the public's Common Law right to occupy the pavement outside the liaison office in downtown Hong Kong.
"It is our submission that they are demonstrably entitled to its (Common Law) protection before this court. That is why they must be acquitted," Haynes said.
Prosecutor Kevin Zervos said Tuesday that evidence showed the defendants were "guilty as charged."
China banned Falun Gong on July 22, 1999, and accused it of being an "evil cult." Thousands of followers have been sent to labor camps.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese rule five years ago and still enjoys many Western-style liberties such as free speech.
The case is attracting strong interest from Falun Gong members outside Hong Kong, who bombarded news organizations here with phone calls and faxes condemning the local government for the trial.
"History is marred with examples of those who have persecuted people of upright beliefs. In all cases, such persecution has not resulted in long-term prosperity. It is hoped that Hong Kong will not go the wrong way," said a statement from a Falun Gong Web site.
HONG KONG - Final arguments began Tuesday in Hong Kong's first criminal case against members of the Falun Gong meditation sect.
The trial of 16 Falun Gong members - including four Swiss - who are charged with public obstruction, has raised worries that Hong Kong is curbing human rights and clamping down on the sect, which is banned in mainland China but allowed here.
The Falun Gong members were arrested during a March 14 protest outside the Chinese government liaison office. The Swiss had been refused entry to mainland China and joined the Hong Kong demonstration instead.
Prosecutor Kevin Zervos summed up Tuesday by saying he believed the evidence presented during the trial had shown the defendants were "guilty as charged."
The trial was due to continue with the defense's final summation on Wednesday.
Local Falun Gong members attending the trial said they would not comment until it ended.
But the case is attracting strong interest from Falun Gong members outside Hong Kong, who have bombarded news organizations here with phone calls and faxes condemning the local government for the trial.
"We are appalled at the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong and at the way this trial has been carried out," said a statement from a group called Friends of Falun Gong USA that urged Hong Kong's judiciary to abandon the trial.
Chinese authorities banned Falun Gong on July 22, 1999, accusing it of being an "evil cult." Thousands of followers have been sent to labor camps.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule five years ago, but the territory still enjoys many Western-style freedoms such as free speech.
Beijing has repeated its claim the sect is an "evil cult"
China has reacted angrily to a resolution passed by the US Congress on Wednesday that calls for an end to persecution of members of the Falun Gong spiritual sect.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said that a handful of people in the United States had been whipping up support for the sect, which is outlawed in China, and slandering the Chinese Government.
The resolution calls for the release of thousands of Falun Gong followers held in jail or in re-education camps and claims the ban on the sect violates the Chinese constitution.
Mr Kong said Beijing had made representations to the US Government to express its anger at the move.
Beijing's official English-language newspaper, China Daily, said the Chinese Government believed the resolution had been drafted ''with ulterior motives and malicious intent'' and it ''ignores the crimes committed by the cult''.
Accusing the US Congress of ''double standards'', the newspaper said the ban on the sect was ''not only in line with the Chinese constitution, but also in line with the international convention on citizens' rights and political rights''.
The state-run Xinhua news agency quoted an official of the National People's Congress Foreign Affairs Committee as saying: ''Those congressmen should stop interfering in China's domestic affairs by making use of the Falun Gong issue, and stop supporting and abetting the evil cult."
Falun Gong was outlawed in 1999 after a mass protest in Tiananmen Square that unnerved leaders.
The US resolution also demanded China ''put an end to the practices of torture and other cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment against them and other prisoners of conscience".
This month, Chinese state media denounced what they said was the hijacking in June of nationwide satellite television signals by Falun Gong.
Messages from Falun Gong allegedly cut into broadcasts of the World Cup final for viewers in remote and rural areas.
HONG KONG - Dozens of followers of the Falun Gong spiritual group protested Saturday to mark the third anniversary of Beijing's crackdown on the sect in mainland China, where it is banned.
About 100 Falun Gong practitioners meditated in a downtown park, while another 40 meditated outside a police station opposite Beijing's representative office in Hong Kong - near the spot where some of them were arrested in March.
They demanded an end to what they call China's often brutal campaign to eradicate the group.
Sixteen Falun Gong followers - including four Swiss nationals - are currently on trial for obstruction charges in Hong Kong's first criminal case against followers of Falun Gong.
"In the past three years, (Chinese President) Jiang Zemin has used the national propaganda machine to slander and attack us and used the military police and secret police to carry out their brutal attacks," said Falun Gong spokesman Kan Hung-cheung.
Chinese authorities banned the sect on July 22, 1999, as an "evil cult" and have sent thousands of followers to labor camps. Falun Gong followers said Saturday at least 438 have died in custody so far.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule five years ago, but the territory still enjoys many Western-style freedoms such as free speech.
The Falungong spiritual movement is employing technologies ranging from phones and faxes to the Internet to get its message directly to people in China, where it is outlawed, the group said.
In another example of the group's highly organised and sophisticated propaganda tactics, a spokeswoman said Thursday practitioners have made mostly random calls to Chinese phone numbers, trying to spread information about persecution of the movement.
"Some call up and talk directly to people in China, others use pre-recorded messages," said Hong Kong-based Sophie Xiao. "They call from various places, such as Canada and Hong Kong."
Falungong, banned in China for the past three years, has recently stepped up its campaign for the hearts and minds of the world's most populous country, prompting growing signs of jitters in Beijing.
Earlier this week, China roundly condemned Falungong for hijacking the satellite signals of government-run television stations, warning that new actions of this kind would be severely punished.
While interruption of television channels have been reported since early this year, adherents started using telephone messages long before that, the group said.
"Individuals have been doing it for quite a while, maybe for the past year, or year and a half," said Xiao, who has herself been sending faxes into China containing information about the movement.
Some have also tried to get in touch with Chinese through Internet chatrooms, she said.
"Practitioners are using every way to take their messages into the country," she said.
The campaign has succeeded in persuading new adherents to join, although its main objective is to give the movement's side of the story after "years of round-the-clock brainwashing", Xiao said.
Specifically, adherents are trying to address an incident in January last year when supposed followers of the group set themselves on fire on Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
The fiery suicide bid, which Beijing claims led to the eventual deaths of two of the protestors, appears to have eroded some of the latent support for the group inside China.
"I guess that ... probably the propaganda did work on some Chinese people," said Xiao, referring to the incident as a "staged self-immolation", Falungong's explanation for it.
China outlawed Falungong in July 1999 as an "evil cult" and has since arrested hundreds of "backbone followers" of the Buddhist-inspired movement, while placing tens of thousands in labor camps, the group says.
The group's New York headquarters has alleged that more than 400 followers have died in police custody, mostly from police beatings and maltreatment.
Following the ban, protests by Chinese-based Falungong practitioners were a regular occurrence on Tiananmen Square.
However these largely tailed off following the self-immolation -- although some foreign activists have staged similar demonstrations -- with the group now seeming to turning its attention to often sophisticated propaganda.
The hijacking of satellite television signals in particular has demonstrated advanced technical knowledge, and visibly enraged Beijing.
On Monday, China called a hastily-arranged press conference to lambast the tactic, saying television broadcasts in large areas of China had been briefly replaced with Falungong propaganda on a number of occasions last month.
BEIJING - The head of China's state-owned television industry is sleeping in his office to prevent hijackers from once again beaming forbidden images of the outlawed Falun Gong movement to televisions around the country.
An engineer at state broadcaster China Central Television, whose channels were among those interrupted, said Minister Xu Guangchun of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television was spending nights at the office.
"The reason he is sleeping in his office is so that he can have instant access if anything unexpected happens and can handle the problem instantly," the engineer said.
Between June 23 and 30, hijackers cut into broadcasts of: the World Cup soccer finals, the fifth anniversary of Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule attended by President Jiang Zemin and news of devastating floods, officials said.
Falun Gong, outlawed in 1999 after an estimated 10,000 followers demonstrated peacefully outside the Communist government's leadership compound in Beijing, has not claimed responsibility for hijacking the satellite broadcasts.
"The Falun Dafa Information Center does not know who tapped into these satellite signals," said a statement from the movement's information arm in New York, where founder Li Hongzhi lives.
But Beijing blames the group, which it calls an "evil cult," and said the disruptions were in retaliation for a government campaign that sent thousands of Falun Gong followers to labor camps or jail.
"This is extremely despicable and represents yet another crime committed by Falun Gong," senior official Liu Lihua said.
Big step up
Followers began hacking into local cable TV networks earlier this year to show Falun Gong videos after once-frequent demonstrations in Beijing petered out.
Falun Gong representatives in New York said those were the work of grass-roots followers.
They also said that by blaming foreign sources for the broadcasts, "Jiang's regime avoids acknowledging that the people of China possess the courage, capabilities, and the hearts to clear the air in such a public manner."
But hacking into national satellite beams is a big step up from cutting into a city-wide cable television network -- especially in a year fraught with change as a party leadership reshuffle looms and economic reforms threaten millions of jobs.
"Falun Gong obviously is playing a very sophisticated game of sabotage. They know where to hit," said a television executive with a foreign company in Beijing.
Experts said the hijackers could not, as one Chinese official told reporters, have popped into an electronics store and bought the required equipment.
"If all they wanted to do was disrupt the signal, that's relatively trivial," said Giovanni Verlini, editor of AsiaPacific Satellite.com http://rd.yahoo.com/dailynews/nm/wl_nm/inlinks/*http://Satellite.com magazine, from his base near London. "But they wanted to hijack the signal. That's not easy at all."
Experts said the hijackers would have needed access to a multimillion dollar earth station from which signals are beamed to satellites, or a satellite dish at least 30 feet wide.
Government sensitivity over Falun Gong was highlighted last week when Beijing stopped transmission of the BBC's World Service Television channel after it showed group members protesting in Hong Kong against Jiang's crackdown on the movement.
According to Hong Kong newspapers, state TV scrapped live coverage of Jiang's speech and the swearing-in ceremony of Hong Kong's Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa last week in fear that the satellite signal might be hijacked.
The June hijackings were aimed at the Chinese Sinosat-1 satellite, which also serves the national weather bureau and other strategic interests, the official news agency Xinhua said.
Sinosat-1 carries about 46 foreign and Chinese channels, according to the Web site www.sinosat.com http://www.sinosat.com Most foreign channels are allowed to broadcast only to luxury hotels and apartment blocks allowed to house foreigners.
BEIJING - Demonized in the press and driven underground by relentless police pursuit, Falun Gong is turning to a new tactic in its fight against the Chinese government's ban on it: mass phone calls.
In a pair of identical phone messages received Tuesday evening at The Associated Press office in Beijing, a recorded woman's voice denounced the ban and called the spiritual movement a force for good in the world.
"Please remember that Falun Gong is about truthfulness, benevolence and forbearance," the voice said.
It wasn't known where the call originated or how many people received the message Tuesday night.
Levi Browde, a Falun Gong spokesman in New York, said he had heard of individual Falun Gong members making such calls before, sometimes using recorded messages.
"They are trying to tell a little bit of the truth, because, we all know we're not going to get much airtime within China," Browde said in a telephone interview.
The call came one day after the government accused Falun Gong followers overseas of hijacking a peak-hour satellite television broadcast last month to briefly air propaganda. State television and official newspapers seized on the reported June 23 broadcast to launch new broadsides against the group.
The incident "again reveals the 'Falun Gong' evil cult organization's anti-humanity, anti-science, anti-social cult base nature," the Xinhua News Agency said in a report Tuesday whose tone was typical of the commentaries.
Browde said he had no information on the source of the broadcast.
China's communist government banned Falun Gong in 1999, calling it a cult that cheated members and drove hundreds to commit suicide or murder others. Falun Gong says it is a form of spiritual cultivation drawn from Chinese tradition and promotes health and morality.
The Chinese leadership has arrested and imprisoned hundreds of Falun Gong members during a crackdown in which Falun Gong claims over 400 of its members have died from torture and maltreatment while in police custody.
Over the past year, public protests against the ban by Chinese followers have largely been stamped out. Yet hardcore members have continued to defy the ban by stuffing letter boxes with promotional materials, using e-mail to keep in contact with other followers and hijacking cable television broadcasts to air pro-Falun Gong clips.
The phone message repeated Falun Gong's claims of brutal repression and accused the government of staging the January 2000 self-immolation of Falun Gong followers in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Falun Gong has made that claim repeatedly with limited effect on a Chinese public that was outraged by the event.
"Never before has there been a tragedy like this in 5,000 years of Chinese culture," the voice on the message said, rising for dramatic effect.
The message also gives listeners an option of hearing more information about the crackdown or listening to a song about the group.
"Please remember Falun Gong is good and thank you for listening," the five-minute message ends.
HONG KONG - The trial in Hong Kong's first criminal case against followers of Falun Gong was adjourned Tuesday after prosecutors objected to the defense's summation and demanded more time to respond.
After an acrimonious session marked by heated protests by the prosecution, Magistrate Symon Wong adjourned until July 16 the trial of 16 Falun Gong followers, including four Swiss, accused of obstruction.
The case has raised worries that Hong Kong is curbing human rights and clamping down on the meditation sect, which is banned as an "evil cult" in mainland China but allowed here. The Falun Gong members were arrested on March 14 for alleged public obstruction during a protest outside the Chinese government liaison office.
The Swiss were refused entry to mainland China and joined the Hong Kong demonstration instead.
During Tuesday's session, defense lawyer John Haynes accused the police of persecuting Falun Gong followers because they had a "political message." Unlike other residents, he said, the practitioners were not given the "pavement tolerance" they were entitled to.
"Hong Kong police have got into the habit of placing humiliating cage like-metal fences around peacefully sitting demonstrators," Haynes said.
Prosecutor Kevin Zervos repeatedly raised objections to Haynes' summation, saying he had failed to address the evidence presented during the trial. He particularly objected to Haynes's contention that police were persecuting Falun Gong adherents.
"You're just making up a story line. Nothing is further away from the truth. There is absolutely no substance in supporting this accusation," Zervos said. "I'm disgusted by such a submission."
Zervos asked for time to prepare a written response to Haynes' summation.
BEIJING - China vowed Monday to punish members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement who hijacked state-run satellite signals during the soccer World Cup finals in one of the group's most daring protests to date.
"This is extremely despicable and represents yet another crime committed by Falun Gong," said Liu Lihua, Director-General of Ministry of Information Industry's (MII) Radio Regulatory Department told a media conference.
The MII said Falun Gong followers had, under the guidance of U.S.-based leader Li Hongzhi, hijacked nine national channels and 10 provincial stations by interfering with signals of state-run Sino Satellite (SINOSAT) company between June 23 to 30.
"We solemnly warn the Falun Gong cult to immediately stop its lawless disruption of normal communications," the ministry said in a statement.
Followers had hacked into cable television networks earlier this year but this was the first time Falun Gong had intercepted the Sinosat satellite, which serves strategic interests such as the national weather bureau and state-run Xinhua news agency.
Millions of Chinese missed part of the World Cup finals, celebrations for the fifth anniversary of Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule, and news related to the fatal floods that had swept the nation, Liu said.
Instead, viewers concentrated in poor and mountainous areas of the country were intermittently shown blackened screens and, at one point, around 20 seconds of images showing Falun Gong adherents meditating in seated positions.
It disrupted a government scheme to broadcast propaganda to the massive rural population, part of efforts to maintain social stability as wrenching reforms threaten to see millions lose their jobs ahead of an expected key leadership re-shuffle.
Xinhua quoted a senior official as saying the act was an "overt challenge to modern civilized society" and a "flagrant subversion of social order."
China's sensitivity over Falun Gong was highlighted last week when Beijing stopped transmission of the BBC's World Service Television channel after it showed group members in Hong Kong protesting against visiting Chinese President Jiang Zemin
Falun Gong, banned in China after followers staged a peaceful demonstration to demand recognition of their faith in 1999, practices a mixture of Taoism, Buddhism, traditional Chinese exercises and its founder's own ideas.
The group's once frequent demonstrations, mostly on Beijing's Tiananmen Square, have petered out following a fierce crackdown.
Followers appear to have changed tactics to focus on state media, and successfully hacked into cable television networks in the southwestern city of Chongqing in January and in the northeastern city of Changchun in March, Liu said.
He said substantial progress had been made in tracking down the perpetrators, who he said had breached national security and international telecommunications conventions.
"They can run but they cannot hide forever. They will be subjected to severe punishment according to the law," Liu said.
The interception of Sinosat's signals, which disrupted more than a dozen hours of viewing, had caused extensive but unspecified economic losses to the commercial reputation of Sino Satellite Communications Ltd, officials said.
While it was easier to interfere with cable television systems than with a satellite, people could buy some of the necessary equipment from local shops and learn how to analyze satellite signals, said Du Baichuan, deputy chief engineer of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT).
"It is not as high-tech as a layman may think," Du told the news conference.
BEIJING: China has suspended satellite television broadcasts by the British Broadcasting Corp. after it carried news footage of the banned Falun Gong group, the broadcaster said Thursday.
BBC World remained suspended Thursday, four days after the item aired, a BBC spokeswoman said on condition of anonymity. Other satellites continued to bring the BBC into China, however.
"We are aware that an item which appeared on BBC World ... has caused some concern to the Chinese authorities,'' a BBC statement said. "We are seeking to understand in more detail the precise nature of their concerns and to see if they can be resolved in a positive and constructive manner.''
It said the channel's transmissions were cut off from a satellite known as Chinese Sinosat 1 and affected only viewers in China, including those in 60,000 up-market hotel rooms across the country and apartment blocks where foreigners live. That is the only officially authorized BBC transmission in China.
The cutoff came after a broadcast on the fifth anniversary of Hong Kong's July 1, 1997, handover from Britain to China - a news item that included material on Falun Gong, the spiritual movement banned by the Chinese government in 1999.
"We're still trying to get to the bottom of their concerns, but I think it's safe to assume that's what it was,'' the spokeswoman said. She said China had offered no information on when the service might be reinstated.
In Beijing, the State General Bureau of Radio, Television and Film refused comment, asking for questions to be sent by fax. There was no response by late Thursday.
China's broadcasters, like its other media, are state-controlled and kept on a tight leash. Foreign media are allowed more leeway, but retributions against reporting that irritates the government are not uncommon.
Falun Gong is a particularly thorny issue with the communist leadership in Beijing, which considers it a threat to order and control. What's more, the movement, also known as Falun Dafa, has made a practice of commandeering local television stations to promote its cause and condemn the government.
The suspended channel has been available since January 2001 under an agreement between the BBC and the Chinese government, the spokeswoman said. She said this was the first suspension since then The BBC World channel's service on three other satellites - known as Panamsat 2, 8 and 10 - was uninterrupted and continued to be broadcast throughout Asia, including China, the statement said.
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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