Australia warns Hong Kong against anti-cult laws

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia said on Monday Hong Kong's reputation for freedom would be damaged if it pressed ahead with anti-cult laws similar to those passed in France.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said such a law, which he discussed with Hong Kong officials during a recent visit, could be directed against Falun Gong followers.

While the Falun Gong is still legal in Hong Kong, top officials, including leader Tung Chee-hwa, have recently indicated that the territory may enact laws to curb the group.

"There's an argument that because France has introduced anti-cult legislation it will be OK for Hong Kong to do it in order to direct the law more specifically against the Falun Gong," he told Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) radio.

"But it's certainly our view that Hong Kong has to continue to persevere with its reputation of freedom and any legislation which is even perceived to undermine that reputation will be damaging to Hong Kong. I made that very clear to authorities in Hong Kong."

Religious groups rallied in the territory on Friday, saying a law similar to that passed in France last Wednesday that will allow courts to ban groups regarded as sects would spell the end to freedoms guaranteed under Hong Kong's constitution.

Beijing banned the Falun Gong in 1999, branding it an "evil cult", and accusing it of trying to topple the Communist government.

Senior Chinese officials warned the group in Hong Kong earlier this year against using the territory as a base for its activities. The former British colony reverted to Chinese control in mid-1997.