Over 40 Foreign Falungong Followers
Held For Beijing Protest


More than 40 foreign followers of the banned Falungong group were arrested for protesting in Tiananmen Square, with some maltreated by police.

The second such demonstration this week -- and the largest so far by overseas practitioners -- came just days before US President George W. Bush is due in China for a visit.

The protest is an embarrassment for Chinese leaders, who are expected to face tough questions about religious freedom during their discussions with Bush next week.

An AFP reporter and other witnesses saw police grab around 25 people on the vast Beijing square when they attempted to unfurl yellow Falungong banners or adopt the group's trademark meditation pose.

The state Xinhua news agency said later more than 40 demonstrators from the spiritual group, brutally repressed since it was banned as an "evil cult" in 1999, were seized at the square.

Many of hundreds of uniformed and plain clothes police posted on the square immediately pounced on the protestors, tackling several to the ground and dragging them into vans, as some of the detained screamed or shouted Falungong slogans.

The mayhem was witnessed by a large number of Chinese and foreign tourists in Beijing for the week-long holiday around Tuesday's Lunar New Year.

After their arrest some of the demonstrators were physically mistreated or verbally abused, an AFP reporter who was also detained witnessed.

One policeman pinned a woman's face to the seat of a van taking protestors and the reporter to a police station, jamming his knee into her back as she knelt.

When the Western woman, who appeared to be in her 20s, was released from the hold she tried to open a window in the van but the same officer slapped her hard across the face.

Another woman was grabbed by her hair when she tried to speak in the van.

Police also detained seven foreign journalists and photographers for two hours, confiscating their film and equipment.

Before the protest, another 21 Falungong followers, including four Britons and seven Germans, were detained in hotels during raids on Wednesday night and Thursday morning, said Gail Rachlin of the group's New York headquarters.

Bush, who arrives on February 21, is under pressure from domestic religious groups over the subject of religious freedom, particularly following the release of what are purported to be leaked Chinese government documents detailing Beijing's drive to crush unauthorized religions.

National holiday periods have often been used by the Buddhist- and Taoist-based Falungong to stage demonstrations.

However such protests have tailed off since five people described by the authorities as Falungong adherents set themselves on fire on Tiananmen Square on last year's Lunar New Year's Eve.

Two of the five protestors -- who Falungong insist were not associated with the group -- died.

Human rights groups estimate that hundreds of Falungong followers have been sentenced to jail terms and tens of thousands sent to labour camps since the ban. The movement says as many as 300 followers have died from brutality in police detention.

Copyright © 2002 AFP. All rights reserved.

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