Falun Gong turns to international courts in campaign against Chinese leadership

Associated Press/September 26, 2003

Beijing -- They tried street demonstrations and mass telephone-call campaigns against Chinese government persecution. Now, followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement are doing what many aggrieved parties do: They're suing.

Over the past 18 months, followers of the group banned in China as an ''evil cult'' have filed at least a dozen suits in foreign courts against Chinese officials they accuse of rights abuses. Their biggest target is former President Jiang Zemin.

Legal action is the latest tactic in a campaign to draw attention to China's often brutal 3-year-old crackdown on the group. If the goal is to rile China's leaders, protected at home by the Communist Party's political monopoly, it seems to be working.

''They are stigmatizing the leaders of China with invented charges. They're trying to tarnish our government, and they are trying to grab attention for themselves,'' Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said this week.

Recent weeks have seen a flurry of new cases in Finland, Iceland, Belgium, France and Australia. The group says it has signed on high-profile lawyers such as British human rights attorney Geoffrey Robertson to represent it.

''The purpose of these cases is simple and specific: to target those responsible for the persecution. This is not a political campaign against the Chinese government,'' said Levi Browde, a Falun Gong spokesman in the United States.

All Falun Gong activism these days comes from abroad; mainland followers are in hiding. It is unclear how many mainland Chinese are Falun Gong practitioners.

The court cases apply foreign laws such as the U.S. Alien Tort Claims Act to crimes committed in China the same principle under which, in 1998, a Spanish judge ordered former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to face charges of crimes against humanity.

China is believed to be exerting considerable diplomatic pressure to have the suits dismissed. Yet even if the lawsuits fail, which is likely, Falun Gong could score public opinion points.

''It's a good strategy. Because if you win, or even if you don't, you can call attention to what you're doing and bring shame and blame against your opponent,'' said Michael Davis, a professor of law and government at Hong Kong's Chinese University.

The legal campaign landed an early success against two lower-level Chinese officials when American judges ruled they didn't merit immunity and convicted them of human rights abuses by default.

But a U.S. federal judge in Chicago dismissed a case against Jiang, saying that courts can exempt foreign leaders from civil lawsuits in the United States if the government advises. The U.S. government had filed a friend-of-the-court petition requesting dismissal, reportedly after China threatened a diplomatic rift.

Falun Gong's lawyer, Terry Marsh, says an appeal is being prepared.

''It is time for the people of China to learn that their government has lied to them ... that the Jiang regime has committed crimes of torture and genocide,'' Marsh said.

Falun Gong's legal teams have identified Jiang as their main target, saying that as president and Communist Party leader he was responsible for the crackdown. Other leaders being sued include the Beijing party chief and members of the party's Politburo.

Falun Gong alleges the government has detained and mistreated thousands of followers and killed hundreds through torture or abuse. China denies abusing anyone but says some have died in custody in suicides or from refusing food or medical care.

The group attracted millions of followers in the 1990s with its regimen of meditation and light calisthenics and philosophy mixing Buddhism, Taoism and the unorthodox teachings of founder Li Hongzhi, a former government clerk who now lives in the United States.

Shaken by Falun Gong's popularity and organizational ability, China banned the group in 1999 and launched a propaganda campaign to demonize it. Top leaders were sentenced to long prison terms and tens of thousands of members sent to labor camps where they were forced to attend lengthy sessions condemning the group.

Followers held public protests for the first couple of years, then moved on to clandestinely distributing pamphlets and CD-ROMs. Later, they used recorded telephone messages to argue their case and hijacked cable-television satellites to show their own footage.

Recent propaganda suggests Beijing remains concerned. In early September, an editorial by the official Xinhua News Agency appeared in major newspapers, demanding a ''fight until the end'' against Falun Gong.

''Any tolerance toward the cult will lead to extreme harm to the general public,'' it said.

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