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Falun Gong Members Jailed For Spreading SARS Rumors - 2003-06-06

China has jailed 180 members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement for spreading rumors about Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

China's state controlled media say the arrests were made in the northern province of Hebei where officials accused Falun Gong practitioners of spreading fears about the Severe Acute Respiratory virus to help recruit new members.

Falun Gong activists were arrested in at least eight cities and handbills, computer discs, and duplication equipment were seized.

The official media accuses Falun Gong of saying SARS is a sign of impending disaster and that the government should stop persecuting the group Beijing has branded "an evil cult."

The banned spiritual group is also accused of saying that its combination of meditation, traditional Chinese philosophy, and slow motion exercise protects its members from the sometimes-deadly SARS virus.

In Hong Kong, Falun Gong spokeswoman Sophie Xiao dismisses China's accusations as "just an excuse" to arrest members of Falun Gong. Ms. Xiao says huge numbers of Falun Gong members have been detained since 1999.

"That's probably in the tens of thousands, we don't know. It is always so hard to get information out of China and China tries to cover up everything they have done, just like the SARS outbreaks," she said.

China's government banned Falun Gong in 1999 as a threat to public safety and security after about 10,000 members staged a peaceful demonstration near the homes of the country's leaders.

Falun Gong claims to have between 70 and 100 million members in China, while the ruling Communist Party's membership is a slightly more than 61 million.