Thursday, April 20 6:25 PM SGT

BEIJING, April 20 (AFP) - Three members of the outlawed Falungong spiritual group have died in police custody in the past month, bringing the number of such deaths to at least 15, a Hong Kong rights group said Thursday.

The Information Center on Human Rights and Democracy said Li Yanhua, 46, Guang Zhaosheng and Zhang Zhenggang, were jailed for refusing to renounce their belief in the group and died in police custody during the last month.

Only the deaths of Li, in Nanchang, southern Jiangxi province, and Guan from Guangjiazui, Hunan province could be independently confirmed.

Li's husband, who identified himself as Yang, told AFP that his wife was sentenced without trial to two years reform through education in January and died on April 14 of heart failure after partcipating in an 11-day hunger strike.

The family requested medical parole in February, but was refused, Yang said. He said that the hunger strike continued after his wife's death.

A governmental office in charge of quelling the Falungong group in Hunan province confirmed to AFP that Guan Zhaosheng died while he was in detention in Beijing this month, but said his death was due to his refusal to take medicine.

The information center said it was told by other detained Falungong followers that Guan was beaten to death by Beijing police and his family was compensated 10,000 yuan (1,200 US dollars) for his death. The government office spokesman denied paying any compensation.

In the third death, the center said Zhang Zhenggang fell into a coma after he was beaten by police in Huaian, Jiangsu province and was hospitalized for five-days before 60 police surrounded the hospital and cremated Zhang before he was officially pronounced dead.

Since July at least 15 Falungong practioners have died in police custody, including Zhao Jinhua, 42, who was allegedly beaten to death by police in Zhangxing, Shandong province and quickly cremated to destroy the evidence.

The Falungong group was banned last July, after the Chinese government labelled the group the biggest threat to one-party communist rule since the 1989 military crackdown on the peaceful Tiananmen democracy protests.

The group, which has also been labelled an "evil cult," advocates clean living and traditional Chinese meditation and breathing exercises.

Category: Deaths