Friday May 19 10:59 AM ET

BEIJING (AP) - A former head of a local militia and believer in the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement has died in a Chinese police detention center after refusing food and water for eight days, a human rights group reported today.

Zhou Zhichang, 45, died May 6 in the Shuangcheng No. 1 prison in northeastern Heilongjiang province, the Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human Rights and Democracy said. He had been imprisoned there since he was caught in Beijing in September attempting to protest against the government ban, it said.

Officials at the prison refused comment and hung up the phone after finding out the caller was not a family member.

Zhou was the head of the citizens militia and military reserves in a district of Shuangcheng city, the group said. Such a position is usually held by a colonel or lieutenant colonel, but the report did not mention if Zhou had a military rank.

Zhou was among thousands of Falun Gong members detained since the government outlawed the group as a public menace 10 months ago. The group's popularity, especially among military officers and members of the ruling Communist Party, alarmed Chinese leaders, who saw Falun Gong as a threat to their power.

Falun Gong has attracted millions of followers. It combines traditional meditation exercises with Buddhist, Taoist and the often unorthodox ideas of its founder, a former government grain clerk. Believers say it promotes health and moral living.

Unconfirmed reports by Falun Gong members and human rights groups say at least 17 Falun Gong adherents have died during detention, some from beatings and some after hunger strikes. The government has denied that any sect members died from mistreatment.

Prison officials waited nine days to inform family members of Zhou's death, purportedly from a sudden heart attack, the Information Center said. It cited relatives who said Zhou did not have a heart condition when he entered prison.

Meanwhile, the Information Center reported that prosecutors in Shenzhen, a boomtown bordering Hong Kong, plan to put on trial the wife of a local Falun Gong organizer.

Li Jianhui was sentenced March 28 to four years in prison for violating the law against "evil cults." His wife, Dai Ying, was detained in early March after trying to petition the United Nations for help in gaining her husband's release, the center said.

Officials with Shenzhen's court and prosecutors office declined comment. The Information Center said city leaders ordered the trial to serve as a warning for others.

Category: Deaths