BEIJING, Feb 7 (AFP) - China Thursday blasted Human Rights Watch for issuing "irresponsible reports" after the New York-based group said the outlawed Falungong spiritual movement had been brutally crushed.
"With respect to Human Rights Watch, the organization often releases irresponsible reports, which bear no comment," foreign ministry spokesman Kong Quan told a media briefing.
The comment came after Human Rights Watch released a 117-page document saying China had used widespread torture, deaths in custody and a massive campaign of detention without trial to suppress the Falungong.
Kong said China was determined to crack down on the group, but rejected the allegations of excessive brutality.
"For adherents of the Falungong, we hope they can break away from this evil cult and return to society," he said. "There is no such thing as Chinese abuse of Falungong practitioners."
Falungong, which Human Rights Watch said once claimed 40 million adherents in China, was outlawed in July 1999.
By September 2001 it had mostly been driven "underground", said the report, entitled "Dangerous Meditation: China's Campaign Against Falungong."
"Substantial evidence" showed that tens of thousands of followers were detained and thousands put into labor camps without trial, with hundreds more convicted of crimes, according to the report.
"Serious human rights violations, including restrictions on freedom of thought, belief, and expression, wrongful detention, unfair trials, torture, and deaths in custody have accompanied the Chinese government response to Falungong," Human Rights Watch said.
Without disputing the government's claim that Falungong is a highly organized "sect", the report maintains that law-abiding citizens have a right to peacefully practise their beliefs.
Human Rights Watch said it had documented widespread police torture against incarcerated followers.
"There is evidence of a range of serious abuses against Falungong members in custody, including beatings, electric shock and other forms of torture, forced feeding and administration of psychotropic drugs, and extreme psychological pressure to recant," the report said.
As of June 27, 2001, exiled members of the Falungong claimed 234 practitioners had died in suspicious circumstances in custody or immediately following release, and that countless others were victims of torture and mistreatment.
"By altering laws and creating new laws with the expressed intention of dismantling Falungong, the Chinese leadership has succeeded only in undermining its claim that the judicial system is rooted in a 'rule of law' principle," Human Rights Watch said.
In many respects the government's tactics were strikingly similar to various extrajudicial campaigns previously waged against "imperialists", "counter-revolutionaries" and other suspect elements, it said.