Hong Kong prosecutors have opened the first criminal court case against the Falun Gong spiritual group. The sect is outlawed in mainland China, but remains legal in Hong Kong. There is some concern that this case may be a sign the Hong Kong government might be trying to restrict the group to please Beijing.
The 16 defendants, four Swiss and 12 Hong Kong members of the Falun Gong, appeared in court to face criminal charges.
Prosecutors say the group violated the law in March during a demonstration against China's ban of the group. They allege the defendants ignored police instructions not to block the entrance of the Chinese Liaison Office.
The charges range from police obstruction to public disturbance. If convicted, they could face up to two years in prison.
Erich Bachman is a practitioner from Switzerland and says the group did not break the law. "Nine practitioners have been accused of obstructing the police but this time inside the police car," he said. "So they accuse more practitioners in hopes to have more chance to win the trial. But we have confidence to get a fair trial."
Human rights activists voiced concern that the arrests are part of an attempt to crackdown on Falun Gong and its freedom of expression in Hong Kong. John Clancey, a lawyer for some of the practitioners, says the charge of obstruction against protesters is unusual. "In a place like Hong Kong, which is considered a very civilized city, these rights of expression have been going on almost on a daily basis," he said. "The Falun Gong members are very surprised they would be charged with this obstruction, a charge that is usually used against illegal hawkers, people selling things on the sidewalk."
Hong Kong officials deny they are trying to curtail the Falun Gong's right to demonstrate, and insist the arrests were simply made to protect public order.
Still, democracy activists worry this case is a sign that Hong Kong's broad autonomy is being eroded, just five years after returning to Chinese rule.
Until 2047, Hong Kong's constitution guarantees the Chinese territory certain freedoms which are currently not permitted on the mainland.
Falun Gong is outlawed in China and Beijing has made clear it is not pleased the group is allowed to practice in Hong Kong.
Last year, Hong Kong's chief executive stirred controversy when he agreed with Beijing's characterization of the Falun Gong as an evil cult and promised to monitor the group's activities more closely.