At least 40 foreign members of Falun Gong detained on China's Tiananmen Square

Thursday, February 14th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BEIJING (AP) _ Chinese police said Thursday they detained more than 40 foreign members of the outlawed Falun Gong religious group who demonstrated on Beijing's central Tiananmen Square.

New York-based Falun Gong activists said between 50 and 100 members from Western countries had planned to demonstrate. The group said another 14 Western followers were detained by Chinese police in their hotels before the protest.

The protest forced police to briefly clear tourists from the center of the square, one of China's most important public monuments.

At least three police minibuses and several squad cars were visible scurrying about the square picking up protesters as they appeared from a crowd gathered for Chinese New Year holidays.

It was impossible to tell from a distance the nationality of the protesters or what they may have been saying.

``The trouble caused by these Falun Gong members was intended to prevent the Chinese people from celebrating'' the lunar New Year, Beijing police said in a brief statement.

It is highly unusual for Chinese police to issue a statement following a protest _ a sign they may be trying to limit damage before next week's visit to Beijing by President Bush.

Security was extremely tight even before the protest. Westerners approaching the square were asked to show identification. Foreign journalists were turned away or physically held. At least seven foreign reporters were also taken to a police station and questioned.

Chinese voices could be heard in the station shouting ``Falun Gong is not a crime,'' though it was not known whether any Chinese nationals had also been detained.

This is the fourth and largest protest to date on Tiananmen Square by foreign followers of the group. On Monday, an American and a Canadian were detained. The American was expelled from China two days later.

In November, 35 Westerners were expelled from China after a protest. A Canadian woman who staged a lone protest last month was held overnight and expelled.

The protest came on the last day of a three-day national holiday for lunar New Year.

On last year's lunar New Year, five people identified by Chinese authorities as Falun Gong followers set themselves on fire on the square. Falun Gong has denied its followers were involved in the Jan. 23, 2001, attempt that left two dead.

Beijing used grim footage of the suicides in a massive propaganda campaign aimed at discrediting Falun Gong. China banned Falun Gong in July 1999 as a threat to public safety and communist rule.

With its blend of martial arts and teachings loosely based on traditional Chinese religions, Falun Gong drew tens of millions of followers in the mid 1990s as China underwent wrenching economic and social change.

The government crackdown has stripped the group of its public following in China. Thousands of Chinese members have been imprisoned, and Falun Gong supporters abroad said 358 of them were killed in captivity. Chinese authorities deny mistreating detainees and say some died after refusing food or medical treatment.