HONG KONG, Aug. 15 (UPI) -- A Hong Kong court Thursday found 16 Falun Gong followers guilty of causing a public obstruction during a protest outside China's main government office, causing concern about the territory's autonomy.
The trial, which began last June, was the first time criminal charges had been brought against members of the spiritual movement in Hong Kong. The movement is outlawed in mainland China where it is called an "evil cult," but there are no laws against it in the former British colony, which was handed back to China in 1997.
The court found all 16 Falun Gong followers guilty of public obstruction and acting in a manner that could cause public obstruction. The convicted group included four Swiss nationals, a New Zealander and 11 Hong Kong citizens. Two of the Hong Kong residents are also U.S. residents.
Nine of the Hong Kong defendants were convicted of willfully obstructing police when the authorities moved to end the demonstration and three were convicted of assaulting police officers. All gave a not guilty plea.
"How can we tell the world we have freedoms when we convict people like this?" asked Law Yuk Kai, the director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor.
"This is obviously politically motivated," said Law. "We can tell the police didn't care about obstructing a public place ... what they didn't want was the embarrassment of having a Falun Gong demonstration right in front of the Chinese flag."
Beijing maintains the Falun Gong is a cult and is a threat to the health and well being of China's citizens. It says the teachings of the movement's leader Li Hongzhi can cause followers to go insane and inflict harm on themselves. The Chinese government also claims more than 1,600 people have died through practicing Falun Gong, some by suicide and others by throwing away prescription medication. Li says through meditation and exercise people can gain good health and that medication is unnecessary.
The Falun Gong says about 500 members have died in police custody in the past three years and tens of thousands more have been thrown in prison or sent to labor camps.
After Beijing outlawed the movement its propaganda machine worked at fever pitch. Testimonials of former Falun Gong members told of their bad experiences while under the spell of the Falun Gong and were broadcast on state-run television and radio and filled the pages of official newspapers.
The group has often used Hong Kong as a site for demonstrations against Beijing's ban on the Falun Gong as the territory borders mainland China. The Hong Kong government finds itself in the awkward position of trying to protect and retain its freedoms, allowed for a fifty-year period from the time of the handover, while at the same time trying not to go against the Beijing government's rulings.
"It's a totally unjust verdict," said Hui Yei Han, a spokesperson for the Falun Gong in Hong Kong. "The prosecution itself is unjust. We never occupied the area the police describe. The charge of obstruction is just an excuse. The Beijing authorities have been persecuting the Falun Gong for three years and now they have used their influence to have the Falun Gong persecuted here."
She said the movement is planning to appeal the court's decision.
The Hong Kong government maintains that freedom of speech can be enjoyed as long as people abide by the rules of the territory.
"My fear is that with this judgment standing the police will use it as a precedent in the future to stop any demonstrations it chooses," said Law of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor.
The magistrate imposed fines on the defendants ranging from about $160 to about $480. Law said some were considering not paying fines as they felt they had done nothing wrong and did not break any laws. They contend they did not block the sidewalk at any time and that the police, who sealed off the area for days after the protest, were the ones who caused an obstruction.
On Wednesday the U.S. State Department said Hong Kong should respect human rights and rule with caution at Thursday's trial. "We continue to stress the importance of Hong Kong striving to maintain its civil liberties and free society, human rights and the rule of law," said U.S. State Department Spokesman Philip Reeker.