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The Associated Press

BEIJING (AP) — China and a human rights group said Wednesday that followers of the outlawed Falun Gong sect hanged themselves in a mass suicide at a prison camp, but the sect claimed the inmates were tortured to death.

Reports of the number of dead of ranged from three to 16, with the number differing even among government officials.

A judicial official in northeastern Heilongjiang province, Lan Jingli, said 14 followers hanged themselves from bunk beds with sheets at the province’s Wanjia labor camp before dawn on June 20. Another 11 followers were stopped from hanging themselves by camp guards, Lan said.

However, a spokesman for the central government’s State Council Information Office said three died and eight were rescued. All 11 were women, he said.

The other eight are now “out of danger,” said the spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity. He also said the suicides occurred June 21, instead of June 20.

A human rights group, The Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, first reported the deaths and said 16 Falun Gong practitioners had hanged themselves as a protest.

It said the suicides came after camp officials extended their sentences by three to six months to punish them for a hunger strike.

Falun Gong denied that the group committed suicide, saying at least 15 followers were beaten to death at Wanjia on or around June 20.

On Wednesday, about 30 Falun Gong members staged a sit-in protest outside China’s representative office in Hong Kong, the Chinese-governed territory where the group remains legal. They called on the United Nations to investigate the deaths.

Sharon Xu, a Falun Gong spokeswoman in Hong Kong, cast doubt on the official claim of suicide, saying prisoners are watched around the clock in labor camps.

“There’s no way they could be allowed to have the opportunity to even find anything to hang themselves,” she said.

Lan, who directs the Heilongjiang bureau that oversees the province’s labor camps, said camp guards patrolled every five minutes. But he said the followers took advantage of a gap in patrols to hang themselves from their cell bunks with sheets.

The State Council spokesman identified the three dead as Zhao Yayun, 53; Zhang Yulan, 54; and Li Xiuqin, 60. All three women were from Heilongjiang, he said.

Falun Gong also identified Zhao, Zhang and Li as among those it said were killed. Li’s body was cremated before her family could view it, the group said. Zhang’s family saw her body June 23 and observed deep marks on her neck, it said.

Zhao’s body had strangulation marks on the neck, bruises on the back and shoulders, and finger marks on the face, the group said.

During the government’s two-year crackdown on the spiritual movement, thousands of followers have been sent to labor camps where China says they are counseled into breaking ties with Falun Gong.

China’s government says Falun Gong is a cult that has led more than 1,600 followers to their deaths, mostly by encouraging practitioners to use meditation instead of medicine to cure medical ailments. Officials claim followers also have killed themselves in the belief that they will go to heaven when they die.

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Lan accused Falun Gong practitioners overseas of having a hand in the suicides.

“Those organizations are using all possible channels to pass on the so-called ‘instructions’ to the practitioners in the reform camp in order to make them believe that going to heaven after their death is the highest level of practicing,” he said.

Falun Gong says its teachings forbid all forms of killing, including suicide, and says the government is running a smear campaign against it.

Falun Gong says 250 followers have died from police brutality since July 1999, more than half of them in the past six months.

The Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy says it has confirmed 153 deaths in the crackdown.

Falun Gong said the Wanjia camp tortures practitioners to make them renounce the group. Guards doused one practitioner with water and shocked her with an electric baton, and threw 50 female followers into cells with male prisoners after they refused to sign statements denouncing the group, it said.

Lan said Beijing officials ordered labor camps to improve surveillance of imprisoned Falun Gong practitioners after the suicide. Falun Gong followers will now be watched constantly, he said.

Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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