Hong Kong has filed charges against Falun Gong practitioners after a confrontational protest. This is the first time the group has faced formal legal action in the highly-autonomous Chinese territory since being banned on mainland China in 1999.

Hong Kong police say they have filed two obstruction charges against 16 members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement.

Authorities allege the group - including four Swiss citizens - ignored police orders during a demonstration in front of a Chinese government office and a scuffle ensued.

It was the latest in a series of protests against China's ban on the Falun Gong as an evil cult and the detention and mistreatment of thousands of followers.

The Falun Gong remains legal in Hong Kong, but the government here has agreed with Beijing's characterization of the group as a cult and has promised to monitor members closely.

Falun Gong spokeswoman Sharon Xu has said it appears the Hong Kong government is coming under increasing pressure from Beijing to crackdown on the group's civil liberties.

"The way that they handled the practitioners is not what one would expect in a society where rule of law is valued would do. Different organizations or individuals have been able to stage peaceful petitions before, for much longer periods of time. But just for these several Falun Gong members planning to sit outside the liaison office for three days - and they were quickly removed four hours with the start of their peaceful sit-in. I think it shows the kind of pressure they are under," she says.

The 16 defendants appeared in court Friday and were released on bail pending further legal action. The group maintains it did not break the law.

The Falun Gong practices a blend of meditation and exercise. It shocked Beijing in 1999, when thousands of followers marched on the government demanding official recognition. Chinese officials responded by banning the group saying its practices were harmful and a number of believers had died.

Since then, China has come under international criticism for its Falun Gong crackdown and has faced a series of high-profile protests in Beijing. Earlier this year, the group briefly hijacked a television station in Changchun to get its message on the air.