Shanghai -- At least 10 followers of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement were reported on Tuesday to have died at a labor camp in northeast China last month, either in a group suicide or from torture.
The Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said 10 women killed themselves to protest their treatment at the Wanjia labor camp outside Harbin in Heilongjiang Province. A government spokesman in Beijing said early today that 14 followers had committed suicide at the camp. Another 11 attempted suicide but were stopped by camp guards, he said.
Falun Gong's Web site (www.minghui.org), based in the United States, was quick to denounce the rights group's report on Tuesday of a mass suicide, saying that 15 women at the camp had been tortured to death and that the camp had labeled their deaths suicide to cover up its crime.
Thousands of Falun Gong adherents have been sent to labor camps since the government banned the movement two years ago, arguing in part that it was a dangerous cult that had persuaded people to forgo necessary medical care or even kill themselves. Since the ban, there have been persistent reports of torture and deaths of followers by the authorities. Falun Gong's Web site says 236 followers have died as a result of confrontations with the police or prison guards.
The government has acknowledged a handful of deaths, but has attributed them all to natural causes or to suicide. And it says it thwarted several group-suicide attempts by followers. In May, the government took a group of Western reporters on a tightly controlled tour of Masanjia labor camp in northeastern Liaoning Province, which Falun Gong had also accused of torturing followers. The reporters saw nothing untoward.
Without independent reporting, it is impossible to determine which accounts are factual, and independent reporting on the subject is strictly forbidden. Falun Gong's founder, Li Hongzhi, has spoken out against suicide in the past, though he has been silent on the subject after recent suicide reports, most notably the self-immolation of five followers on Tiananmen Square in January. Other Falun Gong members have denied that the five who set themselves on fire were actually followers, and charged that the government staged the event.
Meanwhile, Mr. Li's cryptic exhortations to followers on the Falun Gong Web site have grown increasingly strident, chastising those people who cannot endure torture or even death in defense of his cosmology, which holds that Falun Gong is engaged in a struggle with evil beings for the redemption or destruction of the universe.
"Even if a dafa cultivator truly casts off his human skin during the persecution, what awaits him is still consummation," Mr. Li wrote a few days after the labor camp deaths. Dafa means great law or dharma, and refers to Falun Gong, which can be translated as Law Wheel Practice. Consummation is an apparently transcendent event that is the goal of all followers. "Any fear is itself a barrier that prevents you from reaching consummation," Mr. Li wrote.
No account of the labor camp deaths could be immediately verified. A woman from the home village of Zhao Yayun, one of the dead followers identified in the reports, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday that Ms. Zhao had indeed practiced Falun Gong and committed suicide.
"She died in jail," said the woman in Lequn, Heilongjiang Province, declining to give her name. "She killed herself - everybody is talking about it." The human rights group quoted a relative of one of the dead women as saying that 16 Falun Gong followers tried a group suicide on June 20 and that 10 had died. It said the 16 were among 30 followers who had gone on a hunger strike in mid-June. The 16 hanged themselves with ropes fashioned from bedsheets after the camp extended their sentences by up to six months in punishment for the strike, the report said.
The human rights group said an officer from the township police station and a township official named Wang Guonan confirmed Ms. Zhao's death and the group suicide attempt. The Falun Gong report, meanwhile, said that the women had all been tortured to death and that 15 had died. It said Ms. Zhao "died with injuries all over her body," but gave no information to substantiate the claim.