Beijing, China -- In a rare disclosure, China said Monday it has punished 242 organizers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement and sent an undisclosed number of followers to labor camps during an 18-month-old crackdown.
The government information appeared aimed at countering claims that thousands of sect followers are in jails or labor camps and came in the wake of a major weekend gathering of Falun Gong members in Hong Kong. Since outlawing Falun Gong in July 1999, Beijing has infrequently provided figures on those punished by courts and never given an accurate tally of the numbers detained outside of the court system.
A Hong Kong-based rights group says at least 10,000 Falun Gong members are being held in more than 300 labor camps, with one camp for women in northeastern Changchun city holding 560. The Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy has also alleged 98 deaths of sect members, mostly at police hands, while in custody. Many sect leaders are known to have been imprisoned, with one organizer serving an 18-year jail sentence.
Under China's legal system, police have the authority to send suspects to labor camps for up to three years without trial. To combat the widely popular movement, China also set up special detention, or "transformation," centers to force sect members to recant. China denies reports on number of detainees
The disclosure by the Chinese government followed a weekend gathering in Hong Kong of Falun Gong followers. At protests and at a meeting, supporters of the group called on Beijing to cease suppression of their outlawed movement. In comments released Monday by the official Xinhua News Agency, a spokesman for China's Cabinet said 242 sect organizers have received "criminal punishment" from courts but did not say what those punishments were.
Most members sent to labor camps took part "many times in disturbances, making trouble and disrupting social order," the spokesman said. None are in camps "purely because they practiced Falun Gong."
Authorities offered reduced sentences and early release to some of the detained to "educate and save them to the maximum extent," the spokesman said.
The spokesman denied reports on Falun Gong Internet sites that a sect member was killed in Beijing's Tiananmen Square during a protest by hundreds of practitioners on January 1. Chinese officials have previously admitted the deaths of some practitioners but attributed them to suicide, natural causes or hunger strikes.