Survivors of a mass self-immolation by alleged Falun Gong members in Tiananmen Square last year denied on Thursday the Chinese government had rigged the incident, showing their horrific injuries as proof.
China had long denied foreign media access to participants in the January 2001 suicide bid but suddenly arranged interviews this week with survivors and their accomplices, including two jail inmates.
The group denied charges by Falun Gong members overseas that they were not true followers of the group China banned in 1999 as an "evil cult."
"We wanted to strengthen the force of Falun Gong," said Chen Guo, 20, lying in a hospital bed in her home town of Kaifeng, her face a blotchy mass of grafted skin with no nose and no ears. One eye was open, the other covered by a flap of skin.
"We decided burning ourselves was the best way," said Chen, who also lost both her hands. "It was totally due to our own will. We were not forced by anyone."
Falun Gong members overseas have accused Beijing of staging the self-immolation to discredit the group and last month adherents in the northeastern city of Changchun hacked into state television broadcasts to show a film backing up the allegation.
The surprise decision to allow journalists access to the group shows China recognises that its fight against Falun Gong -- a mishmash of Buddhism, Daoism and traditional Chinese breathing exercises -- is far from over.
There has been a series of protests by foreign adherents of the banned group in Tiananmen Square.
The three burn victims -- two others died of their injuries -- all denounced Falun Gong as a cult, echoing the official language of a sustained state media campaign against the group.
"I think Falun Gong has developed into a cult with anti-human and anti-society characteristics," said Chen, a former music student from Kaifeng in the central province of Henan.
"I hope those who still believe in this cult can be awakened and throw it away," she said. "I don't want to see another victim like me."
The victims said they had been inspired to burn themselves, though not specifically instructed, by Falun Gong leader Li Hongzhi, who lives in exile in the United States and publishes teachings mainly via the Internet.
But they said they had originally taken up Falun Gong to benefit their health and not to oppose the government.
"We wanted to show the government that Falun was good," said Chen's mother, Hao Huijun, who also took part in the self-immolation and now shares a hospital room with her daughter.
Hao, 49, has lost her ears and most of her nose, and both eyes are covered with skin grafts. She too has no hands.
She said she had protested peacefully in Tiananmen Square before the self-immolations and had also written a letter of complaint to the National People's Congress, or parliament, but it was sent on to her local prosecutor's office.
"Then I felt writing letters or showing banners cannot not really work," she said. "So finally, we decided...to make a big event to show our will to the world."
Reporters were also allowed to visit the Henan Provincial Prison where Wang Jindong is serving a 15 year sentence for masterminding the self-immolations, which claimed the lives of 12-year-old girl and her mother.
Dressed in a grey-blue prison fatigues with white stripes down the side, Wang denied accusations that he had been bribed by the government to stage the incident.
"If you think it is makeup, you can touch my face and feel if it is real or not," he said, touching his scarred, leathery cheeks with blackened fingers. "As to whether I am a practitioner or not, it's not for other people to say."
"I feel humiliated because of my stupidity and fanatical ideas," said Wang, who shares a simple room with three other inmates watched by a closed circuit television camera.
He said he spent his days studying classical and modern Chinese, reading newspapers and watching television.
"The officials created a favourable environment for my study," said Wang, whose wife and daughter spent nine months in a labour camp for demonstrating on Tiananmen Square.
They also praised the conditions in the labour camp. Wang's daughter said she renounced Falun Gong after just 10 minutes there.
Falun Gong says thousands of its followers have been sent to labour camps without trial and more than 1,600 have died in custody from police brutality.
The government says only a handful have died, mostly from suicide or natural causes. It blames Falun Gong for the deaths of at least 1,900 people by suicide or refusing medical treatment.
(Reuters, April 4, 2002)