Up to a hundred members of the Falun Gong movement were detained in Peking yesterday, after protests in Tiananmen Square to mark the first anniversary of the mass sit-in that led to the organisation being banned.
Yesterday's demonstrations were seen as a show of defiance by the Falun Gong, which has suffered a year of persecution.
Small groups made their way around the square, mingling with tourists to avoid the plainclothes police believed to have been out in force. Here and there they popped up tomeditate or unfurl banners bearing the sect's name in red characters. But as they did, witnesses said, the police pounced, pulling them into white vans. Those arrested did not resist.
Yesterday's protests, which continued all day, appeared to have been coordinated. At one stage, a group of young men dashed across the square unfurling yellow flags. They were tackled by police, wrestled to the ground and bundled into vans. At least one small child and a handful of elderly women were also taken away.
The Falun Gong was declared an illegal organisation last year after being branded an "evil cult". It claims to have up to 100 million followers worldwide and has been lobbying internationally against the crackdown. Some of the leaders of the movement have been jailed for up to 18 years.
A statement issued in New York repeated the insistence that Falun Gong "practitioners" are not politically motivated. It said: "They merely strive [for] 'Truthfulness, Compassion and Tolerance' in daily life."
A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry said: "Of the original two million Falun Gong practitioners, more than 98 per cent have already seen clearly the essence of the Falun Gong cult and broken away from it."