HONG KONG, Aug 3 (AFP) - Interpol on Tuesday said it had rejected China's request to put the leader of the banned Falungong sect on the international wanted list.
Interpol said in a statement, released by its headquarters in Lyon, France, that it could not issue an international arrest warrant for Li Hongzhi because it did not pursue political or religious cases.
"The General Secretariat has informed the National Central Bureau of Interpol in China that it cannot use Interpol channels in order to ask the organization's member states to locate and arrest Li Hongzhi, in the absence of any information about ordinary law crime he would have committed," the statement said.
It said the decision was "based on the reasons behind" China's request to the international police agency.
China last week issued an arrest warrant for Li, who lives in the United States.
It has banned Falungong -- which mixes Buddhist and Taoist beliefs with meditation and deep breathing exercises and advocates high moral standards -- and branded Li a danger to the state.
The Chinese authorities have accused him of illegally organizing a large protest and threatening social stability by spreading "superstition".
Interpol said the reasons behind Beijing's request violated Article Three of the organization's constitution, which forbids Interpol from intervening in matters of a political, religious, military or racial character.
"The General Secretariat gives its assistance, through Interpol channels, for the prevention and suppression of ordinary law crime and in the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," said the statement.
"The General Secretariat has reminded China that it is a sovereign state and as such can use any means other than Interpol to search for fugitives."
The Chinese authorities made no immediate comment.
On Wednesday, China's leading newspaper, the People's Daily, was due to carry a further commentary denouncing Falungong, continuing a stream of propaganda that has poured out of Beijing since the sect was banned.
The article exposed "the nature of and harm done by the Falungong cult", said state news agency Xinhua, and said "more facts should be provided to expose the reactionary nature of Falungong and Li Hongzhi".
A spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Falungong chapter, Sophie Xiao, called Interpol's decision "good news".
"At least the various countries know what's going on," she said.
But she added the rejection did not ensure Li's safety.
"A lot of things can happen to him. China's issuing of an arrest warrant shows how determined they are to get him," Xiao said.
Falungong followers fear Li might be assassinated. A number of Hong Kong followers chose not to participate in a demonstration Sunday because they feared any action would further infuriate China and jeopardise Li.
"I'm really worried about what they'll do to him," said one follower, who helped organize the protest but did not join it after she learned of the arrest warrant.
"The more we do, the more angry Beijing will become. We shouldn't do anything that could lead to harm for Master Li."
US officials also refused Beijing's request to extradite Li, who moved to the United States from China two years ago.
Li is the head of the "Falun Dafa Research Society" and the Falungong group which stunned Chinese leaders on April 25 when some 10,000 members encircled the Communist Party headquarters in Beijing in a silent protest.
China's official Xinhua news agency claims to have documented cases of 743 people dying as a result of Falungong exercises.
State media have also highlighted numerous cases of families ruined after members committed suicide or killed their relatives.
Li, who has insisted his group is apolitical and harmless to the state, has also expressed fears for his safety.
China has carried out a massive book burning campaign to destroy books written by Li in the toughest security measures since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy protestors.
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