Falun Gong protests over 'suicides'

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The Independent Online

Falun Gong members called on the United Nations yesterday to investigate the alleged torture and killing of 15 followers of the meditation sect at a labour camp in China.

At a sit-in protest in Hong Kong, about 30 demonstrators rallied outside China's representative office and accused the Chinese government of committing "inhumane and beastly crimes" against the sect.

They disputed the Chinese authorities' version of events, which claimed that 25 Falun Gong members had tried to commit mass suicide in the labour camp in the north-eastern province of Heilongjiang. They alleged that at least 15 women were tortured to death there on 20 June.

"SOS: Save Falun Gong practitioners from being killed in China," was written on one banner as members protested by doing the group's slow-motion exercises.

Chan Wing-kwong, one of the protesters, said: "The Chinese government mercilessly tortured these followers to death. We hope that the UN can investigate this incident."

Chinese officials said that 14 imprisoned followers at Wanjia labour camp took advantage of a gap in guard patrols and died by hanging themselves from bunk beds with sheets. Another 11 were said to have been rescued by guards. There were conflicting accounts of the number of dead and the times of their deaths.

The deaths were reported after the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said on Tuesday that at least 10 Falun Gong members had died at the Wanjia camp.

The Center said that 16 followers had tried to commit suicide after their period of detention was extended as punishment for a hunger strike. Sharon Xu, a Falun Gong spokeswoman in Hong Kong, cast doubt on the official claim of suicide, saying prisoners are watched around the clock in labour camps. "There's no way they could be allowed to have the opportunity to even find anything to hang themselves," she said.

The account by the Chinese authorities represents the most deadly suicide involving Falun Gong practitioners to be officially reported by the government since it banned the movement in July 1999.

Although the sect is legal in Hong Kong, where residents enjoy broader freedoms than on the mainland, the chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, has branded the group a "cult". Officials have pledged to monitor its activities.

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