BEIJING - China on Friday denied a human rights group's claim of mass roundups and detentions of followers of the banned Falun Gong spiritual group, saying the report was "without basis."
The Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy claimed on Thursday that 2,000 Falun Gong followers had been detained in the northern city of Changchun in recent weeks and more than 150 thrown into reform through labor camps.
The Hong Kong-based group said the crackdown came after March 5, when Falun Gong supporters plugged into cable TV transmissions in Changchun and nearby Songyuan and aired programs attacking government propaganda against the group.
The pirate broadcast, which cut into prime-time programming for close to an hour, was among the most audacious acts of defiance by Falun Gong against the often-brutal three-year-long government campaign to crush it.
Qi Yongli, a spokesman for the State Council Information Office in Beijing, said just nine people have been arrested thus far over the incident. They have been charged with sabotaging public telecommunications equipment and endangering public security, he said.
"The claim that 2,000 people have been arrested and 150 put in labor camps is without basis," Qi said in response to a faxed Associated Press request for information.
China's government banned Falun Gong in July 1999 as a threat to public order and the Communist Party's political monopoly. Thousands of followers have been detained, and the movement claims at least 400 have died in detention.
The government denies killing followers but says some have committed suicide, or died in hunger strikes or by refusing modern medicine.
BEIJING - Authorities have detained 2,000 followers of the banned Falun Gong spiritual group in a northern Chinese city after a defiant television broadcast by the group, a rights organization said Thursday.
More than 150 followers in Changchun have been sent to "re-education through labor" camps, the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said. Changchun's women's labor camp alone has admitted 80 Falun Gong followers over the last six weeks, the Hong Kong-based center said.
Authorities have already announced the arrest of seven Falun Gong followers blamed for orchestrating the March 5 incident, during which cable TV broadcasts in Changchun and nearby Songyuan were interrupted to show programs attacking government propaganda against the group.
The information center said those could go on trial as early as next month.
In Beijing, the third anniversary of a 1999 protest that eventually led to the ban on Falun Gong passed uneventfully Thursday. Only tourists were in evidence on Beijing's Tiananmen Square, where dozens of followers were beaten and detained last year for protesting. No one was arrested, police said.
The Changchun broadcasts was among the boldest acts by Falun Gong amid the three crackdown against it. After the broadcasts, officials in Changchun and surrounding Jilin province were punished or sacked, the information center said. All levels of law enforcement have been pressured to make arrests, it said.
People answering phones at police and labor camp offices in Changchun either hung up or said they knew nothing of the reported detentions. The central government's information office in Beijing did not respond to requests for comment.
Since Beijing banned Falun Gong in July 1999, calling it an "evil cult" that threatens public safety and communist rule, thousands have been detained and Falun Gong supporters abroad say at least 400 have died in custody. China denies killing anyone but says some have committed suicide or died by refusing food or medicine.
Falun Gong was banned three months after Chinese leaders were stunned by an eerie, silent protest on April 25, 1999. Some 10,000 followers gathered around the central Beijing compound where President Jiang Zemin and other top officials live.
Falun Gong members said they were demonstrating against mistreatment by local officials and wanted only to be able to practice the group's slow-motion exercises and meditation in peace. But the demonstration frightened the government by revealing the group's ability to mobilize thousands of people undetected.
China has charged nine followers of the banned Falun Gong movement for hijacking a state broadcast in March.
China's official Xinhua news agency said Falun Gong members had cut off TV transmission lines in the north-eastern city of Changchun on 5 March.
They then used home-made broadcasting equipment to put on air their own programmes, Xinhua said.
The unusual incident, seen as highly embarrassing given China's usually rigid control over broadcasting, saw two films being aired praising the Falun Gong and its US-based founder Li Hongzhi.
Since then there have been other examples of pro-Falun Gong material finding its way into state-controlled media, in some cases implicating local officials.
Xinhua said that in the Changchun incident, cable TV programmes suddenly stopped and were replaced by "an unclear and intermittent video broadcast about Falun Gong".
Xinhua quoted local police officials as saying the interruption constituted "a well-organised, premeditated crime".
A Changchun-based emergency handling centre received more than 4,650 calls from the public on 5 March as people reported seeing the programmes.
Xinhua said callers also "expressed their strong indignation".
Earlier this month, a city prosecutor predicted that the organisers of the transmission would be charged with "using an evil cult to damage law enforcement", a crime which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.
The Falun Gong movement, which China says is trying to overthrow the Communist Party, was banned on mainland China three years ago.
Falun Gong says it is spiritual group that teaches exercise and meditation.
The pirate programmes went out to much of the network of 300,000 subscribers, giving a potential audience of around one million.
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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