24 August 2006

Falun Gong is a spiritual movement that once had nearly 100 million followers in China. But since it was banned by the government, thousands of practitioners have been tortured and even killed. Chris Bond reports.

ZHEN is perched on the edge of the sofa. If she sits back you fear her tiny frame may be swallowed up completely.

Listening to the softly-spoken grandmother it is difficult to comprehend how anyone could bring themselves to harm her - but they have.

The 66-year-old claims she's been beaten, force fed and suffered electro-shock therapy at the hands of the Chinese police -- all because of her beliefs.

Zhen is one of the lucky ones, though, she's alive.

According to the Falun Dafa (Falun Gong) Information Centre, more than 2,300 followers of the meditation practice have been beaten and tortured to death while in detention in China, although Amnesty International believes the numbers imprisoned could run into tens of thousands.

The Chinese authorities have repeatedly denied allegations of brutality and murder and rejected recent, disturbing, reports of "organ harvesting", but just what is Falun Gong?

The meditation practice, similar to Tai Chi, is based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion and tolerance and involves a series of controlled exercises. It was introduced in China in 1992 and within seven years had as many as 100 million followers.

Among them was Zhen. Before a friend introduced her to it she claims she suffered various health problems, including anaemia, dermatitis and hepatitis which forced her to retire early. Within a few months of taking up Falun Gong, though, she says her ailments disappeared.

"After six months I became a new person," she says.

Zhen was not alone in finding Falun Gong a life-changing experience and encouraged other family members to take it up.

But as its popularity soared, the Chinese authorities became increasingly nervous by what they perceived to be [slanderous words omitted] and in July 1999 Falun Gong was banned from public life.

Since then the communist government has set about systematically eradicating the movement and has reportedly detained thousands of practitioners in "reform" centers where detainees are "rehabilitated".

Many people, like Zhen, continued to practice Falun Gong and, despite the risks, joined fellow practitioners in Beijing to appeal against the ban only to be arrested.

"They used a lot of methods of torturing us, they beat us up and used electric shock treatment and I was locked up for 22 days," she says. "They arrested so many, there wasn't enough space, so eventually they let go the people who were over 60 and I was allowed out."

A few days later she was informed she had been secretly sentenced and told the police were coming to arrest her.

"I left my home two hours before the police arrived," she says. "They left the message that I must come home and be 'transformed' [give up Falun Gong], or they would arrest me."

Along with her husband, she hid with relatives staying for no more than a couple of months in one place until a friend told her about a disused flat where they could stay.

"I learned ways of keeping safe, I dug a hole in the wall behind a shoe rack in the living room and we lived inside the next room.

"This way, if someone came into the flat they would see a layer of dust everywhere and wouldn't think people were living there," she says, speaking via an interpreter.

For the next two years they lived in a single room.

"I had to sleep on newspapers on the floor under a quilt, because there was a window and this way if somebody looked in they would just see the empty bed.

"Because the situation was very dangerous I had to gather water drop by drop so this way it would make no noise. Also I could only flush the toilet once a day when other people were asleep.

"We had to keep the windows closed all the time even in the summer when the weather was so hot. In the winter there was no heating and outside the weather was minus 20 degrees."

Because their pension had been stopped they were forced to survive on what little savings they had.

"We didn't have any vegetables during this time and because we had so little money we often went hungry. It felt like we had been given a life sentence."

With the help of friends and relatives, though, the couple were able to buy two passports for 5,000 pounds, money raised by selling the family's flat.

Last October, they escaped to the UK, where their two sons now live, and were granted asylum in May.

But although Zhen, she has changed her name to protect her family, is grateful to have escaped her own nightmare she still has relatives back in China, including one of her two grandchildren.

"I am one of the lucky ones," she says. "Most of my fellow practitioners who used to practice with me were beaten or killed and some of them disappeared and we don't know what happened to them."

It is why she, and a group of fellow practitioners, are traveling throughout the country to raise awareness over the persecution of Falun Gong followers in her homeland.

This persecution has led to claims that Falun Gong practitioners have been used for organ harvesting.

Horrific photographs, reportedly smuggled out of China, show the bruised and battered bodies of alleged victims minus their eyes, with crude stitch marks showing where the organs have been removed.

Last month, Canada's former Secretary of State David Kilgour and international human rights lawyer, David Matas, published a report into these allegations concluding that they believed large-scale organ removals was still happening.

Edward McMillan-Scott is vice president of the European Parliament and one of six Euro MPs serving Yorkshire and Humber and has spoken to former Falun Gong prisoners.

He described the treatment of its followers in China as "one of the cruellest religious repressions in human history".

The Tory MEP also believes there must now be an international inquiry into the allegations of brutality and organ harvesting.

Until this happens human rights campaigners fear that Falun Gong practitioners will continue to be persecuted.

It might be an emerging super power, but in the People's Republic of China it seems not even grandmothers are safe.

To find out more information, visit the Falun Dafa Information Centre website at www.faluninfo.net