12/12/00 22:38 (New York)

BEIJING, Dec 13 (AFP) - A Chinese college professor has died six months after being badly beaten by police while in detention for refusing to denounce the banned Falungong movement, group members said Wednesday.

Zhao Xin, a 32-year-old assistant professor at the Business and Economics College at the Beijing Industry and Commerce University, died Monday at her dormitory on the campus, according to her friends and a Falungong statement.

They said Zhao had a fractured neck vertebra when she was transferred from a Beijing detention center to hospital in critical condition on June 22, four days after she was arrested.

She also had bruised and swollen eyes, minor injuries to her head and difficulty breathing, they said.

A lecturer at the college since 1992, Zhao began practising Falungong in 1998 and was arrested many times for appealing to the government to lift the ban and for practising Falungong on Tiananmen Square.

The last time she was arrested was June 19 when she and 20 other Falungong practitioners were caught doing Falungong exercises at a Beijing park.

She was sent to the Qinghe Detention Center in Beijing's Haidian district, but refused to cooperate with police, friends say. She would not give her name and workplace and went on a hunger strike.

Friends believe she was severely beaten by police.

"She was healthy when they arrested her," a friend, who identified herself as Li Fang, told AFP.

Zhao was in a critical condition when she was taken to the hospital and had to be fed intravenously and could breathe only with a respirator, said Li, who said she had witnessed police beating practitioners.

Her family in November decided to sneak her out of the hospital because they did not believe the hospital could help her. Doctors said even if Zhao survived, she would have been paralyzed.

Li said Zhao also refused medicine from the hospital, believing it was ordered by the police to keep her weak.

"The hospital wanted to give her medicine, but she felt the medicine would do her harm," Li said.

Police officials confirmed to AFP Zhao had been detained at Qinghe, but refused to comment further.

The Falungong headquarters in New York said police claimed Zhao's wounds were self-inflicted. They said she banged her head against a wall, which led to the fracture.

Zhao's parents have tried to file a complaint with the Beijing procurator's office, but the office refused to accept their petition.

Around 75 Falungong practitioners are now reported by human rights groups to have died in suspicious circumstances in police detention since the group was banned as [] in July last year.

Falungong members follow the Buddhist-inspired teachings of their exiled guru Li Hongzhi, who advocates clean living and group morning exercises that involve traditional Chinese breathing routines.