By Tan Ee Lyn
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Sixteen followers of the [..] Falun Gong spiritual movement appeared in a Hong Kong court Monday charged with public obstruction, the first time members of the group have been tried in the Chinese city.
Though banned in mainland China, the movement has remained legal in Hong Kong, which was promised a high degree of autonomy when it returned to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997.
The decision to prosecute the group, which includes four Swiss nationals, is bound to raise fresh questions about freedoms in the territory five years into Chinese rule.
Monday's proceedings sparked a renewed out cry from the group, which accused Beijing of meddling in Hong Kong's affairs and damaging the "one country, two systems" principle under which the former British colony was handed back to China.
"The Hong Kong authority's violent arrest and framed-up prosecution against the (accused) have apparently originated from the pressure of mainland
authority or its agent," the Hong Kong Falun Gong group said in a statement provided to the media.
The 16 were charged with causing a public obstruction during a protest outside Beijing's main representative office in Hong Kong on March 14, when they denounced Beijing's crackdown on the movement on the mainland.
They were also charged with potentially causing public obstruction by unfurling a banner with the words "(Chinese President) Jiang Zemin, Stop Killing."
All pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
[..] Political observers say the charges have coincided with what appears to be a hardening of resolve by the territory's leader Tung Chee-hwa to get tough on Beijing's critics in the approach to the handover anniversary on
"The authorities just want to make sure there are no unexpected hiccups during the anniversary celebrations, when Jiang Zemin is expected in Hong Kong," said political commentator Andy Ho.
In May, Hong Kong police charged three political protesters with organizing an unauthorized rally, the first such prosecution since the handover, prompting concern over possible erosion of civil liberties.
A political conservative, Tung will begin his second five-year-term as Hong Kong's leader from July thanks to strong support from leaders in Beijing.
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