Falun Gong inmates hang themselves in protest

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Ten followers of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement hanged themselves last month in protest at the abuse they were suffering from the Chinese authorities, a Hong Kong-based human rights monitor alleged yesterday.

Another six practitioners apparently survived the mass suicide attempt in a labour camp in Lequn township, near the city of Harbin, in north-eastern China.

The Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy said the 10 deaths on 20 June followed the extension of inmates' sentences after about 30 Falun Gong believers went on a hunger strike to protest against frequent beatings in the camp. News of the suicides has been suppressed in China, although local police confirmed to Agence France-Presse that "several" Falun Gong followers had died.

After two adherents burnt themselves to death in Tiananmen Square in January, the Chinese government spent several days gathering its thoughts and materials before launching a nationwide propaganda campaign to portray the group as an evil, doomsday cult.

The latest deaths could also fuel that argument, but they come at an irritating time for Beijing. On 13 July, the International Olympic Committee must vote on the destination of the 2008 Games. Beijing is a clear front-runner, dogged only by its appalling human rights record.

Yesterday, the press freedom watchdog Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) joined the list of human rights groups protesting against China's bid for the Games, demanding the release of a Chinese web journalist, Huang Qi, who the group says has been held for a year without trial He is accused of publishing "subversive" articles denouncing the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989 and of publishing articles by Chinese dissidents.

"All of Beijing's promises to ensure total press freedom for foreign journalists during the 2008 Olympic Games are illusory," said the RSF general secretary, Robert Ménard.

Falun Gong spokesmen overseas allege that China has detained more than 10,000 believers since the group was banned two years ago, and that more than 200 have died in custody. The Independent has learnt that this year several Harbin-based followers attempted to sue the Chinese President, Jiang Zemin, over their ill-treatment and the ban.

Yet the Communist Party's crackdown against Falun Gong has undoubtedly been a domestic success. By sending police to the homes of every known believer, the party has reduced the stream of protesters reaching Tiananmen Square to a trickle. The group failed to disrupt the Olympic inspectors' visit earlier this year or the propaganda fest of the party's 80th birthday on 1 July.

The Chinese government says the group is responsible for the deaths of more than 1,600 people by suicide or refusing medical treatment. Under a propaganda barrage reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, many of China's citizens have grown convinced of the need to crush the group.

"The Falun Gong must be desperate," Feng Wanjun, a journalist in Harbin, said yesterday. "Like a cricket after the autumn, they only have a few days left to jump around."

Mr Feng is a keen practitioner of Chinese qigong, the traditional breathing regime from which Falun Gong heavily borrows. "Falun Gong followers are being controlled, it's like brainwashing," he says, referring to the New York-based founder Li Hongzhi. "Life is better now in China, why do we need cults like this? The wife of a friend of mine, became obsessed with Falun Gong. She was abnormal and refused medical treatment, until I persuaded her she was wrong."

To convince other believers of the error of their ways, China imprisons thousands for three or more years in a "re-education through labour" system that does not require a trial or court of law.