“Falun Gong File Suits
Vs. Chinese Leaders”
by Christopher Bodeen
(AP, September 26, 2003)
They tried street
demonstrations and mass telephone-call campaigns against Chinese government
persecution. Now, followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement are doing what
many aggrieved parties do: They're suing.
Over the past 18 months,
followers of the group banned in China as an "evil cult" have filed
at least a dozen suits in foreign courts against Chinese officials they accuse
of rights abuses. Their biggest target is former President Jiang Zemin.
Legal action is the
latest tactic in a campaign to draw attention to China's often brutal
3-year-old crackdown on the group. If the goal is to rile China's leaders,
protected at home by the Communist Party's political monopoly, it seems to be
stigmatizing the leaders of China with invented charges. They're trying to
tarnish our government, and they are trying to grab attention for
themselves," Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said this week.
Recent weeks have seen a
flurry of new cases in Finland, Iceland, Belgium, France and Australia. The
group says it has signed on high-profile lawyers such as British human rights
attorney Geoffrey Robertson to represent it.
"The purpose of
these cases is simple and specific: to target those responsible for the
persecution. This is not a political campaign against the Chinese
government," said Levi Browde, a Falun Gong spokesman in the United
All Falun Gong activism
these days comes from abroad; mainland followers are in hiding. It is unclear
how many mainland Chinese are Falun Gong practitioners.
The court cases apply
foreign laws such as the U.S. Alien Tort Claims Act to crimes committed in
China — the same principle under which, in 1998, a Spanish judge ordered former
Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to face charges of crimes against humanity.
China is believed to be
exerting considerable diplomatic pressure to have the suits dismissed. Yet even
if the lawsuits fail, which is likely, Falun Gong could score public opinion
"It's a good
strategy. Because if you win, or even if you don't, you can call attention to
what you're doing and bring shame and blame against your opponent," said
Michael Davis, a professor of law and government at Hong Kong's Chinese
The legal campaign
landed an early success against two lower-level Chinese officials when American
judges ruled they didn't merit immunity and convicted them of human rights
abuses by default.
But a U.S. federal judge
in Chicago dismissed a case against Jiang, saying that courts can exempt
foreign leaders from civil lawsuits in the United States if the government
advises. The U.S. government had filed a friend-of-the-court petition
requesting dismissal, reportedly after China threatened a diplomatic rift.
Falun Gong's lawyer,
Terry Marsh, says an appeal is being prepared.
"It is time for the
people of China to learn that their government has lied to them ... that the
Jiang regime has committed crimes of torture and genocide," Marsh said.
Falun Gong's legal teams
have identified Jiang as their main target, saying that as president and
Communist Party leader he was responsible for the crackdown. Other leaders
being sued include the Beijing party chief and members of the party's
Falun Gong alleges the
government has detained and mistreated thousands of followers and killed
hundreds through torture or abuse. China denies abusing anyone but says some
have died in custody in suicides or from refusing food or medical care.
The group attracted
millions of followers in the 1990s with its regimen of meditation and light
calisthenics and philosophy mixing Buddhism, Taoism and the unorthodox
teachings of founder Li Hongzhi, a former government clerk who now lives in the
Shaken by Falun Gong's
popularity and organizational ability, China banned the group in 1999 and
launched a propaganda campaign to demonize it. Top leaders were sentenced to
long prison terms and tens of thousands of members sent to labor camps where
they were forced to attend lengthy sessions condemning the group.
Followers held public
protests for the first couple of years, then moved on to clandestinely
distributing pamphlets and CD-ROMs. Later, they used recorded telephone
messages to argue their case and hijacked cable-television satellites to show
their own footage.
suggests Beijing remains concerned. In early September, an editorial by the
official Xinhua News Agency appeared in major newspapers, demanding a
"fight until the end" against Falun Gong.
tolerance toward the cult will lead to extreme harm to the general
public," it said.