Falun Gong members ask Singapore court for leniency

SINGAPORE - Fifteen followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement asked a Singapore court to be lenient with them on Thursday, after pleading guilty to obstructing police and or illegal assembly.

The 15, two Singaporeans and 13 Chinese nationals, were arrested and charged after holding a New Year's Eve vigil commemorating Falun Gong members the movement says has died in jails in China and in incidents there following a crackdown.

Eight face a S$500 (US$280) fine or three months in jail or both on charges of illegal assembly and obstructing police. Seven have been charged with illegal assembly and face a maximum fine of S$1,000 (US$560).

In a 90-minute mitigation plea, five lawyers representing the nine men and six women presented an image of law-abiding engineers, students on scholarships and pregnant homemakers who were unaware that they had broken the law, and were fearful of losing their livelihoods and being expelled from Singapore.

Falun Gong is legally registered in Singapore but all organisations require a permit to assemble in a public place.

About 60 followers of the group gathered in a local park before midnight on New Year's Eve with two large placards bearing the names and photographs of dead adherents.

Police said they refused an order to disperse and blocked officers trying to seize the placards as evidence.

The prosecution said in court that police had warned the group for three and a half hours and allowed 45 other adherants to go free before making their arrest.

"They had ample time to think of the implication of their act," the public prosecutor said. "They chose to remain."

Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, combines meditation and exercise with a doctrine loosely rooted in Buddhist and Taoist teachings. It first shocked Beijing with a 10,000-strong protest in April 1999 and was banned in China later that year.

The case was adjourned until next Thursday.