By Dirk Beveridge
Associated Press Writer
Thursday, August 15, 2002; 2:12 PM

HONG KONG -- Sixteen Falun Gong followers were convicted Thursday of public obstruction for protesting against China, and government critics said an appeal by members of the meditation group could severely test Hong Kong's freedoms.

Falun Gong members accused China of exporting mainland-style suppression to this former British colony by prosecuting practitioners who demonstrated in front of the Chinese government's liaison office here.

But Falun Gong did not completely block the sidewalk and the defense called it a trumped-up case intended to stifle the group's pleas that Beijing should stop trying to eradicate it in the mainland.

"The verdict once more shows the pressure from mainland China," said Erich Bachmann, one of four Swiss defendants. "The people are now being persecuted in Hong Kong."

Falun Gong accused Magistrate Symon Wong of bias and promised an appeal.

When Hong Kong was returned from Britain to China five years ago, Western-style freedoms of expression were guaranteed for at least 50 years under a government arrangement dubbed "one country, two systems." But many fear those freedoms are crumbling fast.

"If the administration and police decide to embark on a case to interfere or restrict or undermine the rights of people here, the last line of defense would be the judiciary," said Law Yuk-kai, director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, a non-governmental organization.

"So if the court gives a green light to this unscrupulous interference, I don't think we have other avenues to address our worries," Law said.

Three years ago, Hong Kong's Court of Appeal went against the government and ruled it was constitutional for activists to burn the Hong Kong and Chinese flags in protests, although the Court of Final Appeal eventually reinstated a ban on flag desecration.

Many ordinary citizens in Hong Kong have little regard for Falun Gong - but experts note that people spreading unpopular viewpoints from the fringes often become the focus of important cases involving speech rights.

While Hong Kong's government insists local freedoms are safe, frequent protests here by Falun Gong, which is outlawed in mainland China as an [Jiang's regime's slanderous words], have presented local leaders with a dilemma.