Reuters, Aug. 6, 2002
By Carrie Lee
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police did not persecute the 16 Falun Gong followers charged with obstruction, prosecutors said on Tuesday towards the end of Hong Kong’s first trial of members of the controversial spiritual movement.
Though banned in mainland China, the movement is legal in Hong Kong, which was promised a high degree of autonomy when it returned to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997.
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The local government’s decision to prosecute the group, which includes four Swiss nationals, has raised questions about freedom in the territory, five years into Chinese rule.
“The allegation by the defence that police were persecuting them…was unfounded and unsubstantiated,” Kevin Zervos, lawyer for the prosecution, said in his final submission. “This is not harassment, not persecution.”
The 16 were charged with causing a public obstruction during a protest outside Beijing’s main representative office in Hong Kong on March 14.
They were also charged with potentially causing public obstruction by unfurling a banner with the words “(Chinese President) Jiang Zemin, Stop Killing”.
Nine also faced a third charge of wilfully obstructing police when they were forcibly removed by officers during the protest. Three of the 16 have also been charged with assaulting police.
All pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
A POLITICAL CASE?
Falun Gong followers say the arrest and charges constitute persecution by the local government under pressure from Jiang.
But Zervos said that the charges concerned only breaches of the law and the arrest of the Falun Gong followers was lawful.
He said the defendants, far from being persecuted, had been intentionally provocative to attract publicity, abusing policemen verbally as well as being physically aggressive.
He also accused the defendants of giving false testimony, making false accusations, and tailoring evidence to suit their case. Defence lawyers are due to make their closing submissions on Wednesday.
The Falun Gong movement, which fuses meditative exercises and elements of Taoism and Buddhism, spooked the Chinese leadership in 1999 when thousands of its followers gathered in front of the leadership compound in Beijing to press for official recognition.
Beijing banned it as an “evil cult” a few months later and has since imposed a harsh crackdown. Falun Gong claims that more than 1,600 followers have died as a result of abuse in police custody or detention centres.
The group’s protests, news conferences and exhibitions in Hong Kong have been left largely alone and are seen as a gauge of political and religious freedom in the territory.
But political observers say the charges have coincided with what appears to be a hardening of resolve by the territory’s leader Tung Chee-hwa to get tough on Beijing’s critics.