BEIJING, May 22, 2000 -- (Agence France Presse) Chinese police Friday cited heart disease as the cause of death in detention of a leading member of a banned (spiritual) movement -- a claim disputed by a Hong Kong-based human rights group.

Zhou Zhichang, 45-year-old head of Falungong practitioners in Shuangcheng City in northeast Heilongjiang province, died after an eight-day hunger strike, the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy reported.

The Buddhist-inspired Falungong movement has been the subject of a harsh national crackdown after catching the authorities off-guard by assembling 10,000 followers around the Communist Party's headquarters in Beijing in April last year.

Although Shuangcheng city police told AFP Zhou's death resulted from heart disease, the center said in a faxed statement that family members had not known him to have been ailed by heart problems in recent years.

He died on May 6.

"Police withheld information from family members until just before cremation of the body on May 15 when they told them of his death and allowed them to view the body," the center said.

Police did not provide his family with any written medical reports, it added.

Zhou had been held in a detention center since he was detained by police in Beijing and returned to Shuangcheng city in October last year, it said.

The center said at least 17 Falungong followers had died after beatings or launching hunger strikes.

Tens of thousands of other followers have been detained and sent for "re-education" while core leaders have been jailed for up to 18 years.

The Communist Party sees the movement as the biggest threat to its grip on power since the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests.

((c) 2000 Agence France Presse)