Britons seized in China for Falun Gong protest

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The Independent Online

Chinese police rounded up more than 40 foreign members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, including a British schoolboy, after international supporters of the outlawed sect yesterday staged their largest protest so far in China.

Four other Britons who were arrested with 10 foreigners at a Beijing hotel on Wednesday were deported yesterday.

Amid some of the tightest security seen in Tiananmen Square for several years, protesters unfurled Falun Gong banners and shouted slogans to highlight China's "persecution campaign" and alleged torture of Falun Gong followers.

The demonstrators appeared amid crowds of tourists who had gathered to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Scores of uniformed and plainclothes police rounded up foreign supporters of the sect before bundling them into vans.

The demonstrations may be designed to raise awareness ahead of President George Bush's planned visit to China next week but the British Falun Gong spokesman, Peter Jauhal, said the timing was probably coincidental. He added that a British schoolboy, Alexander Rostron, was among those arrested yesterday.

China's foreign ministry informed British embassy staff that four Britons arrested on Wednesday left China yesterday on flights bound for London.

They were identified as Lee Hall, an English student at Loughborough University; Earl Rhodes, a BBC cameraman; Rosemary Katzen, an English tutor, and Robert Gibson, a retired osteopath. Mr Jauhal said police pulled Ms Katzen's hair and "manhandled" Mr Rhodes.

Several foreign journalists were detained yesterday in and around the square, where Chinese Falun Gong members have staged regular small-scale protests since the government banned the movement in 1999.

China's official Xinhua news agency said the foreigners were arrested because they "agitated for the evil cult and produced uproars" in the square. "This turmoil at the heart of the Chinese capital was aimed to undermine the happy atmosphere of Spring Festival[China's lunar new year holiday]," the agency said.

It said the foreigners were "given reprimand, admonition, education and humanitarian treatment", an apparent indication that the protesters were likely to be deportedafter being cautioned by police.

Falun Gong's founder, Li Hongzhi, who lives in exile in the United States, promotes a mixture of traditional qi gong breathing exercises and Taoist, Buddhist and other beliefs.

The group claims more than 350 followers have died in Chinese police custody and thousands have been sent to labour camps without trial.

Falun Gong named seven Germans arrested in the square and said that members from several other countries, including the United States and Canada, had planned to join the protest.