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Charlotteans Roughed Up In Tianenmen Square 

Local Falun Gong practitioners risk bodily harm to protest Chinese crackdown

Six North Carolinians, including two people from Charlotte, were arrested, beaten, searched, robbed and interrogated during a recent trip to Beijing. They were there to peacefully protest the Chinese government's persecution of some 100,000 members of Falun Gong, a meditation and spiritual movement that has come under increasing fire from the government. The incident has caused an international scandal, and brought attention to what is being called atrocious human rights violations in which thousands have been imprisoned, tortured and even killed.

The six North Carolinians involved left from the Raleigh airport on February 8 with plans to hold their protest during the week of Chinese New Year. Just before 2pm on February 14, the activists -- including about 50 other Falun Gong adherents from across America and Europe -- emerged from the tunnels leading into Beijing's bustling Tianenmen Square, which is bordered by parliament buildings and museums. As they began to unfurl their banners and sing the praises of Falun Gong, they were immediately set upon by uniformed and plainclothes Chinese police officers.

Joann Kao and Tina Bakatsias were some of the first ones attacked. "As we came out of the tunnel, we saw hundreds of policemen waiting for us," said Kao, a 40-year-old restaurant manager from Charlotte. "They grabbed me and twisted my arms behind my back and pushed me into a police van. All we could do was call out 'Falun Dafa' (the practice is good). One of the police officers ripped a scarf off my neck and stuffed it into my mouth. They treated us like animals."

Bakatsias was tackled from behind, after which she curled into a fetal position, covering her head. "They grabbed me by the hair and arms and shoved me into a police van," said Bakatsias, a 27-year-old office manager from Durham.

Thai Ton, a 34-year-old biologist, also from Durham, was getting similar treatment. After being tackled and wrestled to the ground, he was thrown into the back of a police van.

"One of the officers shoved me under a seat," Ton said. "He planted his foot on the back of my head and kept me pinned there. Every time I tried to break free he just stepped down harder."

Andrew Parker, a 22-year-old UNC-Greensboro student, was also wrestled to the ground and forced into a police van.

"Some Westerners who had nothing to do with the demonstration were being beaten and taken away," he said. "If the police will beat us in public in the middle of the day and we're backed by the US government, imagine what they're doing to the Chinese people behind closed doors."

Magnus Lee, a 21-year-old architecture student at UNC-Charlotte, had come armed with a small hidden camera, and caught much of the two-hour ordeal on film. "I have footage of people being chased, tackled, kicked, shoved into police vans, women getting pulled by their hair, people with open wounds on their face. It was unbelievable."

Lee was one of the few demonstrators who avoided capture, and managed to make it back to his hotel room near the airport. However, the others weren't so lucky. After being forced into police vans, they were driven to the Tianenmen Square police station. There they were separated, photographed and interrogated, during which time they were searched, and in many cases, their possessions stolen.

"If anybody resisted, the police would kick and beat them," Kao said. "It was really chaotic," Ton said. "We locked our arms to try to stay together, but they kept forcing us apart. People were screaming and being thrown to the ground. I ended up on the bottom of this big pile of people."

After being held at the Tianenmen jail for over two hours, the group was then hustled back into the police vans and taken to a hotel that's been converted into a police interrogation facility.

"It was obvious this hotel was for their (police) use," Parker said. "There were these big two-way mirrors in the rooms, the halls were dark, and they had all these metal detectors and conference tables set up."

Again, the group was separated and interrogated. When they asked to speak to a member of the American Embassy they were ignored or laughed at.

"You never knew what was going on," said Bakatsias. "Every time I asked them where were they taking me, they would just ignore me. While I was in the company of others I wasn't that scared. But when I was taken away by myself and interrogated, I was petrified. You just never know what's going to happen behind closed doors."

Eventually, about 15 of the protestors -- including those from North Carolina -- were herded into a single room, where a cluster of chain-smoking police officers kept a constant eye on them.

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