Saturday, 07-Dec-2002 11:00AM Story from AFP

PARIS, Dec 7 (AFP) - Four followers of the banned Falun gong spiritual group have launched legal action in France against the Chinese Vice Premier Li Lanqing, accusing him of torture, their lawyers said Saturday.

The four plaintiffs, who include one French national, accuse Li of responsibility for "Office 610", a government agency that has severely suppressed [Falun Gong practitioners].

The complaint was lodged in the southern French city of Nice, which Li had been due to see last month during a state visit to France, the plaintiffs' lawyers William Bourdon and Georges-Henri Beauthier said.

The lawyers said the complaint was based on the UN Convention Against Torture, which France signed in 1984 and which allows it to arrest and prosecute any person guilty of torture.

Beauthier told AFP he had gathered "overwhelming testimony" about the activities of "Office 610".

"It is the first time in Europe that a Chinese leader has faced such a complaint," he added.

He said he hoped a magistrate to investigate the case and come to the conclusion that Li could have been arrested during his visit to France, which included a meeting with President Jacques Chirac.

The [...] Falun gong has long complained that practitioners who are sentenced to labor camps face torture and abuse on a daily basis.

Many practitioners have died in labor camps from excessive forced labor, torture, abuse, lack of adequate nutrition, medical attention, or a combination of these factors, the group said.

The causes of their deaths are routinely concealed and deceptively attributed to "natural causes" in an attempt by officials to escape responsibility for murder, it says.

China banned Falun gong [...] in 1999 and has since jailed or detained tens of thousands of its practitioners.