HONG KONG (AP) — An appeal hearing began Wednesday for followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement who were convicted in Hong Kong over their protest against mainland China’s crackdown on the group.
Sixteen followers — four Swiss citizens, a New Zealander and 11 Hong Kong people — were fined for obstructing a public place during a March 14, 2002, sit-in at the Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong.
Three of protesters from Hong Kong also were convicted of assaulting police in a scuffle that broke out when officers removed them. Nine, including the New Zealander, also were convicted of obstructing police. They also are appealing those charges.
By appealing, “we’re defending human rights, freedoms and the rule the law,” said Falun Gong spokesman Kan Hung-cheung before the High Court hearing began Wednesday.
The obstruction charges in Hong Kong’s first-ever criminal trial of Falun Gong followers were “persecutions and malicious accusations” against the meditation group — and were due to pressure from mainland Chinese authorities — Kan said.
Falun Gong is banned as an “evil cult” on the mainland but remains legal in Hong Kong, a former British colony that reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 but still enjoys Western-style civil liberties under its local government.
However, some pro-democracy lawmakers and human rights activists believe Hong Kong’s freedoms are deteriorating.
One of the convicted followers, Lu Jie, on Tuesday called the appeal a test of whether Hong Kong’s rule of law can overcome political pressure.
On Wednesday, about 70 Falun Gong followers and supporters marched from a downtown park to the High Court to mark the beginning of the appeal and to urge China to stop suppressing the group.
Justice Department spokesman Joe Cheung declined comment on the case because it was still in court.
The convicted followers initially refused to pay their fines, which ranged from 1,300 Hong Kong dollars (US$167) to HK$3,800 (US$487). An anonymous individual later paid on their behalf.