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Thursday, 15 August, 2002, 05:20 GMT 06:20 UK
Hong Kong convicts Falun Gong members
Falun Gong protest march in Hong Kong
Supporters held protest marches ahead of the verdict
A Hong Kong court has found 16 Falun Gong followers guilty of causing a public obstruction during a protest outside China's main office in the territory.


The defendants had paid absolutely no regard to the public during the demonstration

Judge Symon Wong
It was the first time criminal charges had been brought against members of the spiritual movement in Hong Kong.

The organisation is outlawed in China, but there are no laws against it in the former British colony.

Human rights organisations have expressed concern that the case could indicate an erosion of freedoms which continued in Hong Kong after Britain handed it back to Chinese rule in 1997.

Test case

The 16 - including one New Zealander and four Swiss nationals - were arrested on 14 March following a protest to highlight the fate of Falun Gong practitioners within Mainland China.

Falun Gong member being arrested
Five foreigners are among the defendants
All were found guilty of public obstruction, which carries a maximum fine of HK $5,000 (US $641) or three months' imprisonment.

Nine - all of them Hong Kong Chinese - were also convicted of the more serious charge of obstructing the police who broke up the demonstration.

In addition, three of those were convicted of assaulting a police officer.

Human rights campaigners and Hong Kong opposition politicians have described the trial as a key test of the freedoms the territory enjoys, five years after its return to China.

But in issuing the verdict, Judge Wong said the case had nothing to do with the defendants practising Falun Gong.

Appeal

"The defendants had paid absolutely no regard to the public during the demonstration," Judge Wong said. "The defendants were in open defiance of the laws of Hong Kong."

A spokesman for Falun Gong said the defendants would appeal against the convictions.

Before the ruling, Falun Gong followers had threatened further action.

"Even if we are found not guilty, we will plan some action because the charges are unreasonable," said Hui Yee-han, a spokeswoman for the group in Hong Kong, without elaborating.

Action so far has included a hunger strike which began on Monday and two protest marches.


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