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Demonstrators Return to U.S.

February 16, 2002

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MORRISVILLE, N.C. (AP) _ Five North Carolinians who were among 33 Americans expelled from China after protesting the treatment of Falun Gong members there returned home to a tearful reunion with family and friends.

Greeted with bright bouquets and banners on Friday, the demonstrators told of being dragged and kicked by Chinese police in Tiananmen Square when they spoke out in favor of the banned religious sect on Thursday.

``They don’t have a voice at all in China,″ said Al Whitted III, one of the protesters. ``We felt like we needed to be their voice.″

Four Britons and five Germans also were expelled following the protest, diplomats said Friday. It was the biggest demonstration yet by foreign followers in the square in Beijing against the Chinese crackdown on the meditation group.

Whitted, a middle school teacher, was met by his wife at Raleigh-Durham International Airport following the final leg of his flight from Beijing.

``He looks a little worse for wear, but he’s strong in spirit,″ Megan Whitted said after a week away from her husband.

Al Whitted, an adherent to Falun Gong for three years, said he and dozens of westerners entered the square Thursday afternoon and unfurled banners saying ``Falun Gong is Good.″

He said he was quickly surrounded by more than a dozen police officers, who whacked him in the back of the legs and carried him away.

Tina Bakatsias, another protester, described how she was dragged by her hair to a police bus. Protester Thai Ton said other Americans left China with black eyes, split lips and scrapes from their encounters with police.

``A lot of the people were beaten,″ said Ton, a biologist. He said he was pushed to the ground and stomped a few times before being carried away by police. ``They had a boot on my face on the ground.″

Falun Gong, loosely based on traditional Chinese religions and martial arts, drew tens of millions of followers in the mid-1990s. It was banned in China in 1999 as a threat to public safety and communist rule.

Adherents perform mind and body exercises while being committed to principles such as tolerance, forbearance and truth.

Thousands of members have been detained and activists abroad say 358 have been killed. Chinese authorities deny abusing anyone but say some members died in hunger strikes or after refusing medical treatment.

In November, 35 Western members of Falun Gong were expelled after a protest in Tiananmen Square.

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On the Net:

North Carolina protesters’ press statement: http://www.xcelr8.com/appeal/

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