French anti-sect law fuels precedent fears

The French National Assembly overnight (HK time) adopted a bill to crack down on sects that lawmakers say is being studied by the SAR Government with a view to possible action against the Falun Gong.

Earlier this month, Chief Secretary for Administration Donald Tsang Yam-kuen admitted the Government was studying overseas legislation on cults without specifying which countries' laws.

''A responsible government has to consider cautiously all the options available. We have to make ourselves well-prepared and not be all in a fluster when matters arise,'' Mr Tsang said.

Legislator Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee denounced his comments and asked the Government if it were using the French plan as ''a legal cloak for religious persecution''.

In France, the new law met stiff opposition and a controversial proposal to make ''mental manipulation'' a criminal offence and part of the new legislation was dropped overnight following protests by minority religious groups.

The new law will allow courts to ban groups regarded as sects. It stipulates that banned groups which re-form under a different name can face prosecution.

It also provides for sects, as well as individual members, to be punished for fraud, illegal practice of medicine, wrongful advertising or sexual abuse.

The bill, and especially the article on ''mental manipulation'', or brainwashing, sparked an outcry from several groups when it first went before the French parliament in June 2000.

A spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology, which is under close scrutiny by the French authorities, said at the time that the bill would ''sound the death knell for French democracy''.

Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church was among other groups that denounced the bill as anti-democratic and in breach of basic human rights.

The brainwashing clause was eventually dropped after an official consultative human rights body as well as then-justice minister Elisabeth Guigou also criticised it.

The bill was devised in response to a report in February 2000 by a ministerial mission that found there were 200 sects in France, most of them well-organised.

Ms Ng on Thursday welcomed the rejection of the mental manipulation clause, and said the fact that the law was passed should not mean that the Government should adopt it for the SAR, which is does may not share the same problems as France.

''Any attempt to borrow from the example of France is utterly wrong,'' said Ms Ng.

A Falun Gong spokesman in Hong Kong told that some clauses in the French law were ambiguous and he was worried they could be easily used to oppress religious freedom and human rights.

''But it is legal to practice Falun Gong even in France ... I trust the SAR Government will respect the truth and freedom of belief,'' Kan Hung-cheung said.