(New York) -- The Chinese government is using new laws and new interpretations of old laws to crack down on the Falungong, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

Falungong members have been classified with Tibetan and Uighur 'splittists' and unauthorized religious groups as a major threat to the Communist Party, Human Rights Watch said. The 117-page report, Dangerous Meditation: China's Campaign Against Falungong, analyzes why and how the Chinese government embarked on a plan to eradicate the group it terms an "evil cult."

In recent documents, the Chinese government has suggested that Falungong is a terrorist organization.

"China's efforts to equate the Falungong with terrorists are ludicrous," said Sidney Jones, executive director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "Most Falungong members are peaceful, law-abiding citizens, and there is no excuse for the human rights violations they have endured."

The new report traces the evolution of the Chinese government's crackdown, starting with the July 1999 ban on the hierarchically-organized meditation group, which now boasts millions of members worldwide. From the initial ban, the government moved on to prohibit practicing the group's exercises in public, and to confiscate and destroy hundreds of thousands of copies of its publications.

The Chinese government has used increasingly violent tactics as Falungong followers have mounted peaceful demonstrations against the crackdown. It has also used administrative detention procedures to hold followers in reeducation camps and psychiatric facilities. The Chinese judiciary has reinterpreted existing law to facilitate arrests of Falungong supporters.

Dangerous Meditation also documents Chinese success in limiting the growth of Falungong in other countries through warnings that tolerance of the organization could jeopardize bilateral relations. The Hong Kong government has responded uneasily to Falungong's presence there.

"The charge that Falungong threatens the stability of China does not hold up," said Jones. "Its claim that belief in Falungong is a public health menace is equally bogus. The danger to health comes from the treatment its practitioners receive at the hands of the police and prison officials."

Dangerous Meditation features one follower's lengthy account of his treatment in detention, his renouncement of Falungong under pressure, and his recantation of his testimony once he was freed. He describes the first of his four detentions. Police officers took him to the local police station where he was knocked down, kicked so severely that the his leg took three months to heal, and shocked with electric batons until he "lost his mind." The police chief told him, "If you die, we will bury you and tell everyone you committed suicide because you were afraid of a criminal charge."

Human Rights Watch notes that the "anti-cult" legislation developed to eliminate Falungong is being used against at least sixteen other religious organizations that refuse to tailor their beliefs and practice to the demands of the Chinese government. In recent months members of such groups, including Mentuhui, Nanfang Jiaohui, and the Holy Spirit Reconstruction Church, have been sentenced to long prison terms. Only international pressure has saved some from immediate execution.

Human Rights Watch called on the Chinese government to amend laws referring to "superstitious sects," "secret societies," and "evil religious organizations" - the definition of which is largely political - and to revise regulations that censor the media and the Internet. Falungong's capacity to mobilize its supporters inside and outside China has stemmed from a highly sophisticated use of electronic communication.

Human Rights Watch also urged multinational corporations to avoid complicity in human rights abuses by preventing the dismissal of workers whom local cadres have accused of Falungong membership. It also urged the international community to speak out against China's human rights record, including its treatment of Falungong practitioners, through a resolution at the meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights beginning in Geneva March 16, 2002.