Hong Kong -- Authorities in Hong Kong took a tougher line Friday against Falun Gong followers arrested in a protest outside the territory's Chinese liaison office, accusing some of assaulting and obstructing police.
Sixteen members of the meditation group - including four from Switzerland - appeared in court and pleaded innocent in Hong Kong's first criminal case against members of the meditation sect, which is banned in mainland China as an ``evil cult'' but is legal in Hong Kong.
"We were just making a peaceful appeal,'' said Falun Gong spokeswoman Hui Yee-han.
The Falun Gong demonstrators faced two counts each of obstruction after they were arrested by police on March 14 at the front door of the liaison office. The group frequently protests there against Beijing's suppression of mainland followers.
Prosecutor Tommy Tang added more serious charges against four of the protesters from Hong Kong on Friday, when they appeared in court to hear a formal reading of the accusations against them.
Wong Yiu-hing and Lu Jie were accused of assaulting and obstructing police officers. Lau Yuk-ling was charged with assaulting the police, and Tso Chi-sin was charged with obstructing the police.
The charge of obstructing police is punishable in Hong Kong by up to two years in prison, and assaulting police carries a penalty of up to six months in prison. The original charges of obstruction carry a penalty of only up to three months in prison.
Falun Gong denied the charges. Both the protesters and police claimed to have sustained minor injuries after the demonstration turned into a shouting and shoving match.
Police arrested the Falun Gong followers after they refused repeated orders to move their protest from outside the front door of the Chinese liaison office to an approved location several steps away.
Prosecutor Tommy Tang did not specify Friday how the police were allegedly assaulted but alluded to two incidents inside a police van, one in a police parking lot and one inside a police briefing room.
Falun Gong and some local supporters believe Hong Kong is cracking down on sect followers under pressure from Beijing, which has waged a brutal campaign to eradicate it. Hong Kong officials deny this.
Britain handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997, under an agreement that promised the territory would retain its free market economy and enjoy a high degree of autonomy for the next 50 years.
Magistrate Tong Man ordered the Falun Gong followers to stand trial beginning June 17 but said that the Swiss defendants could leave Hong Kong in the interim.