Singapore jails seven Falun Gong members for vigil

SINGAPORE, March 29 (Reuters) - A Singapore court sentenced seven members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement to four weeks in jail on Thursday for obstructing police and gave the maximum fine to eight others for holding a rally without a permit.

Subordinate Court magistrate Carol Ling said the defendants

"manifested an utter disregard" for police who waited three hours before moving in to break up a New Year's Eve vigil commemorating members the movement says have died in jails in China.

The 15 adherents, two Singaporeans and 13 Chinese nationals, pleaded guilty to obstructing police and, or illegal assembly at an earlier hearing.

The seven jailed members had risked a maximum term of three months. The others were given the maximum fine of S$1,000 ($556).

Falun Gong, which Chinese authorities have denounced as an evil cult, is legally registered in Singapore but all organisations require a permit to assemble in public.

In a mitigation plea on March 22, lawyers for the nine men and six women sought leniency, presenting an image of law-abiding engineers, students and pregnant homemakers who were unaware they had broken the law and feared being expelled from Singapore.

Deputy public prosecutor David Chew told Reuters the expulsion of the 13 Chinese nationals was at the discretion of the immigration department. The jailed members were likely to be released after three weeks for good behaviour, he said.

A Chinese official said the rights of the Chinese nationals would be respected if they returned home.

"If they are not allowed to live here, they have the right to go back to China," second secretary at China's embassy in Singapore, Zhou Jian, told reporters outside the court.

"They are Chinese citizens. If they refrain from engaging in any criminal activities, their rights should be fully considered and respected."

About 60 followers gathered in a park before midnight on December 31 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 police warned the group and allowed 45 other adherents to go free before making the arrests.

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.