BEIJING, Aug 26, 1999 (Reuters) - China rejected on Thursday U.S. criticism of its plan to prosecute leading members of the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong.
"The Chinese side resolutely opposes foreign intervention in China's internal affairs under any pretext," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
"China is a country ruled by law. Our laws protect citizens' freedom of association, speech, assembly and religious belief. But we will not allow any one to abuse this freedom to engage in activities that sabotage social order," it said.
"Falun Gong is an illegal organisation with features of a cult that is anti-science ... anti-society and anti-government."
The statement said the handling of the movement had been "completely in accordance with the law."
U.S. State Department spokesman James Foley criticized China on Wednesday for its plan to prosecute leading members of Falun Gong and urged Beijing to respect international agreements on human rights.
"It's also our long-standing belief that no one should be persecuted for peaceful assembly, association or peaceful expression of their views.
"We therefore urge the Chinese government to live up to its obligations under international human rights instruments and protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion."
China banned Falun Gong on July 22, calling it an illegal organisation that corrupted people's minds, sabotaged stability and sought to replace the government. The authorities have since rounded up thousands of Falun Gong adherents.
The official Xinhua news agency said on Tuesday the Communist Party and the State Council, or cabinet, had issued a circular saying core members of Falun Gong "must be punished in accordance with the law."
It did not say how many people would be prosecuted, or on what charges, but said it would be a "tiny minority" of Falun Gong adherents. Those could face a life sentence.
A Hong Kong-based human rights group, the Information Centre of Human Rights and Democratic Movement, said China was expected to charge more than 50 Falun Gong leaders.
It said lawyers in Beijing had been told to get official permission before taking on cases involving Falun Gong members. Lawyers in the capital and several other cities had been told to report to authorities any approaches from members for advice.
Falun Gong -- a mishmash of Buddhism, Taoism and a form of martial arts known as qigong which involves breathing exercises based on the theory of inner energy -- claims 100 million members, but the government says two million is more accurate.
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