HONGKONG -- About 14,000 followers of the spiritual Falungong group have petitioned Chinese leaders, demanding an end to government harassment during their morning exercises, according to a human-rights group.
The open letter to the central government was signed by 13,742 practitioners from Shijiazhuang, northern Hebei province, and handed over to the city's complaints bureau, said the Information Centre of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China.
"The letter protested against a recent crackdown and oppression of practitioners of Falungong, and demanded that the central authorities permit the open practice of Falungong and the legal publication of the works of Falungong founder Li Hongzhi," the Hongkong-based centre said on Thursday.
The letter, addressed to President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji, cited several incidents in Shijiazhuang, where Falungong practitioners were threatened with the loss of their jobs or beaten if they did not stop morning exercises.
The group, which boasts about 100 million practitioners in China, shocked Beijing when about 10,000 protesters, demanding similar rights, rallied in front of the Communist Party headquarters in central Beijing on April 25.
Since then, there have been widespread reports of a nationwide crackdown on followers, which the government has denied.
Beijing has said the morning exercises are lawful, but that followers are not allowed to demonstrate or to "spread rumours".
Falungong is a martial art which combines elements of Buddhism, Taoism and the traditional breathing exercise of qigong.
The police crackdown appears to be related to fears of organised anti-government protests this year, which marks the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown and the 50th anniversary of the founding of communist China.
The Falungong website, at www.falundafa.org, lists about 130 letters from members around China condemning Beijing's denial of the crackdown and citing widespread incidence of government harassment. --AFP