HONG KONG (AP)--As Hong Kong prepares to bring its first criminal case against followers of the Falun Gong movement, human rights watchdogs are predicting another ominous test of the former British colony's freedoms and autonomy.
Falun Gong is banned on the Chinese mainland [
]. But Hong
Kong, although a part of China since 1997, has kept the freedoms that allow Falun Gong to practice its meditation exercises and to protest against the Chinese government's suppression of the movement.
It has created an uncomfortable situation for Hong Kong and its leader, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, but until now Hong Kong has responded only with words, calling Falun Gong a "[slanderous term used by Jiang Zemin regime]" and promising to closely watch the group.
That changes Monday, when 16 Falun Gong followers - 12 Hong Kong Chinese and four Swiss - go on trial for public obstruction during a protest outside the Chinese government's liaison office here. Some also face stiffer charges - obstructing and assaulting the police.
The potential penalties are mild compared with the situation on the mainland, where a brutal crackdown allegedly has left hundreds dead. Public obstruction can mean up to three months in jail or fines of $64, while
obstructing the police can lead to two years in prison.
The trial will be very different from what defendants could expect in, say, Shenzhen, the Chinese border city just an hour's train ride from central Hong Kong. The Falun Gong followers will be tried under the English common-law system inherited from British rule, before judges whose independence is guaranteed under the terms of the 1997 change of sovereignty.
Still, Falun Gong fears Hong Kong is following China's lead and trying to silence the group - a charge Hong Kong's semiautonomous government denies. "This is no doubt a political move and has an element of suppression to it,"
said a local Falun Gong spokesman, Kan Hung-cheung. "We hope Hong Kong's courts will rule justly and won't start acting like China, where there is no justice at all."
Many in Hong Kong have little sympathy for Falun Gong, but rights campaigners say unpopular expression must be protected if free speech is to thrive under the "one country, two systems" formula that returned Hong Kong
to Chinese sovereignty but preserves its Western-style civil liberties.
"It's shameful that they have chosen to harass protesters so harshly by prosecuting them," said Law Yuk-kai, director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, a non-governmental organization.
"Now they're targeting Falun Gong; soon it will be other people," Law said.
"If they would say we are guilty, this would mean persecution from China is going over to Hong Kong," said Erich Bachmann, one of the Swiss who had come
to Hong Kong to support the Falun Gong movement.
Lawyer John Clancey, representing the 16 defendants, says his clients were in nobody's way.
"It will be very hard to put the case forward that they were actually obstructing anything," Clancey said.
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