BEIJING (AP) — When street demonstrations and mass telephone-call campaigns to protest Chinese government persecution fizzled, followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement did what many aggrieved parties do: They sued — in countries other than China.
Over the past 18 months, followers of the group banned by the Chinese government as an “evil cult” have filed at least a dozen suits in foreign courts against Chinese officials they accuse of rights abuses. Their biggest target: former President Jiang Zemin.
It’s the latest tactic in an ongoing, high-profile campaign to draw attention to China’s often brutal three-year-old crackdown on the group. If the object is to rile China’s leaders, who are protected at home by the Communist Party’s political monopoly, it seems to be working.
“They are stigmatizing the leaders of China with invented charges. They’re trying to tarnish our government, and they are trying to grab attention for themselves,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said this week.
Recent weeks have seen a flurry of new cases in Finland, Iceland, Belgium, France, and Australia. The group says it has signed on high-profile lawyers such as British human rights attorney Geoffrey Robertson to represent them.
“The purpose of these cases is simple and specific: to target those responsible for the persecution. This is not a political campaign against the Chinese government,” said Levi Browde, a Falun Gong spokesman in the United States.
Virtually all Falun Gong activism these days comes from abroad; mainland followers have gone into hiding. It is unclear how many mainland Chinese are Falun Gong practitioners.
The court cases apply foreign laws such as the U.S. Alien Claims Tort Act to crimes committed in China — the same principle under which, in 1998, a Spanish judge ordered former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to face charges of crimes against humanity.
China is believed to be exerting considerable diplomatic pressure to have the suits dismissed. Yet even if the lawsuits fail, which is likely, Falun Gong may still be able to claim public-opinion points.
“It’s a good strategy. Because if you win, or even if you don’t, you can call attention to what you’re doing and bring shame and blame against your opponent,” said Michael Davis, a professor of law and government at Hong Kong’s Chinese University.
The legal campaign scored an early success against a pair of lower-level Chinese officials when American judges ruled they didn’t merit immunity and found them guilty of human rights abuses by default.
But a U.S. federal judge in Chicago dismissed a case against Jiang on grounds that courts can exempt foreign leaders from civil lawsuits in the United States if the government advises. The U.S. government in that case filed a friend-of-the-court petition requesting dismissal, reportedly after China threatened a diplomatic rift.
Falun Gong’s lawyer, Terry Marsh, says an appeal is being prepared.
“It is time for the people of China to learn that their government has lied to them … that the Jiang regime has committed crimes of torture and genocide,” Marsh said.
Falun Gong’s legal teams have identified Jiang as their main target, saying that as president and Communist Party general secretary he was responsible for the crackdown. Other leaders being sued include Beijing party chief Liu Qi and Luo Gan, members of the party’s Politburo and among the country’s most powerful men.
Falun Gong alleges the government has detained and mistreated thousands of followers and killed hundreds through torture or abuse. China denies abusing anyone but says some have died in custody in suicides or from refusing food or medical care.
The group attracted millions of followers in the 1990s with its regimen of meditation and light calisthenics and philosophy mixing Buddhism, Taoism and the unorthodox teachings of founder Li Hongzhi, a former government grain clerk who now lives in the United States.
Shaken by the size of its following and organizational ability, China banned Falun Gong in 1999 and launched a massive propaganda campaign to demonize it. Top leaders were sentenced to long prison terms and tens of thousands of rank and file members sent to labor camps where they were forced to attend lengthy sessions condemning the group.
Followers held public protests for the first couple of years, then moved on to clandestinely distributing pamphlets and CD-ROMs. Later, they used recorded telephone messages to argue their case and hijacked cable-television satellites to show their own footage.
Recent propaganda suggests the government remains concerned. In early September, an editorial by the government’s official Xinhua News Agency appeared in many major newspapers, demanding a “fight until the end” against Falun Gong.
“Any tolerance toward the cult will lead to extreme harm to the general public,” it said.