Westerners protest in Tiananmen Square

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Chinese police detained 35 Western practitioners of Falun Gong who assembled on Tuesday in Tiananmen Square to protest against Beijing's brutal crackdown on the mystical sect.

State media said the group, who posed as tourists before launching a brief prayer session, would be expelled from China. The protesters, mostly aged in their 20s and 30s, spent almost an hour in the square yesterday, talking among themselves and taking photographs of the symbolic heart of China, witnesses said. At 2pm they sat in the lotus position and unfurled a yellow banner bearing the Falun Gong slogan, "Truthfulness, Compassion, Forbearance" in English and Chinese.

Compared with the vicious beatings that Chinese Falun Gong followers have endured in the square, the foreign activists were herded into police vans with an unusual degree of tolerance – aside from some kicking, slapping and dragging – and taken to a police station.

Soon after, a Falun Gong website issued a statement from the group, whose members were said to hail from 10 countries including Britain, America, Canada, Germany, Switzerland and Australia.

Although Beijing has curtailed Falun Gong activities on the mainland, the protest will reinforce perceptions in the Communist Party leadership that the Falun Gong founder, Li Hongzhi, ensconced in Queens, New York, is working with foreign forces to destabilise China and overthrow the Party. Practitioners insist Falun Gong is a breathing and spiritual exercise for the mind and body, but Beijing banned the movement in 1999, claiming it was an "evil cult" responsible for thousands of deaths. Falun Gong leaders say at least 311 believers have died from police torture.

Jess Jauhal, a spokeswoman for the Falun Gong UK Information Centre, said two of its members, Brendan Trought, a student from Cork, and Lilian Staf, a Swedish film maker based in London, had been involved in the protest.

Ms Staf, who left a letter for family and friends in case she did not manage to return, called Ms Jauhal yesterday to say the group was being moved from police cells towards the direction of the airport.