By Karlyn Barker and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 22, 2006
The protester who disrupted a White House ceremony for Chinese President Hu Jintao remained defiant yesterday, even after prosecutors charged her with a federal crime punishable by up to six months in jail.
"It's not a crime but an act of civil disobedience," Wenyi Wang declared after she emerged from a hearing in U.S. District Court in Washington, drawing cheers from nearly three dozen fellow activists from Falun Gong, a religious sect that is suppressed in China.
Wang, 47, a doctor who lives in New York, got onto the White House lawn Thursday morning as a credentialed journalist for a newspaper associated with Falun Gong. She was arrested by the Secret Service after she began yelling from a media platform. The outburst interrupted Hu's remarks at the ceremony, attended by President Bush and other leaders, and created an embarrassing situation for the White House.
A judge released Wang on personal recognizance yesterday and, at the prosecution's request, ordered her to stay away from the White House while awaiting trial.
Thursday's disturbance lasted more than two minutes as Wang unfurled a yellow protest banner and shouted at Hu, and then Bush, in Chinese and English. The Secret Service said that she said things including, "Stop oppressing the Falun Gong," "Your time is running out" and "Anything you have done will come back to you in this lifetime." She also exclaimed: "President Bush, stop him from killing! President Bush, stop him from persecuting Falun Gong!"
Prosecutors maintained that the yelling at Hu was threatening and constituted a crime -- willfully intimidating, coercing, threatening and harassing a foreign official. Wang's attorney characterized it as free speech. Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson turned down a defense request to dismiss the case and set a follow-up hearing for May 3.
Chinese officials had warned the United States of the potential for protests during Hu's visit. And Wang herself had caused a commotion at least once before: She confronted former Chinese president Jiang Zemin in Malta nearly five years ago with complaints about the treatment of Falun Gong, according to press reports.
The White House had issued Wang a one-day press pass to cover the ceremony after she presented credentials as a reporter for the Epoch Times. Many of the newspaper's staff members, like Wang, are Falun Gong practitioners, according to a newspaper spokeswoman.
Falun Gong is a Buddhist-based spiritual movement with millions of members in China and elsewhere. It became the focus of controversy when it was banned by the Chinese government in 1999 after followers staged a series of peaceful protests in Beijing. Founded by a Chinese soldier in 1992, Falun Gong in Chinese means "Practice of the Wheel of Law." It blends meditation and martial arts.
Adherents say thousands of the group's followers have been imprisoned by the Chinese government. The Epoch Times recently published articles alleging the harvesting and sale of organs from still-living practitioners held in Chinese labor camps. In the past, the harvesting of body parts from executed prisoners has been widely alleged and detailed in official Chinese government newspapers. The Chinese government has called Falun Gong an "evil cult" and accused its leaders of trying to overthrow the ruling Communist Party.
Terri Wu, spokeswoman for the Epoch Times, said Wang has a medical degree and doctorate from the University of Chicago and has been working for the newspaper for six years, specializing in medical issues. The newspaper issued a statement saying that it did not know that Wang was planning the protest. The statement apologized to Bush and the White House -- but not to Hu.
Wang helped research the recent Epoch Times articles on organ harvesting and was "very overstressed," Wu said. When she saw Bush shake the hand of the Chinese leader, she felt obligated to speak out, the spokeswoman said.
A spokesman for the National Security Council, which accredited the foreign media representatives attending the event, said that the Epoch Times is a legitimate news organization and that its reporters had attended White House events previously.
"They had always comported themselves in a professional way," Frederick Jones said. "We would have no reason to not allow them entry."
During yesterday's court hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Angela George argued that Wang's statements were not protected by the First Amendment.
"She was yelling at the president," George said. "You can't walk into a theater and yell 'Fire!' The First Amendment does not permit her to engage in criminal conduct."
But Wang's defense attorney, John Bos, ridiculed the notion that her remarks were threats or that they constituted intimidation.
"There's no evidence that President Hu heard the statements and no evidence that the statements caused him to stop and look up," Bos said.
Before the Secret Service escorted Wang from the media platform, a cameraman pulled the banner from her hands and tried to quiet her by placing his hands on her mouth. Bos said that, rather than Wang's shouts, could have caused Hu to pause in his remarks.
Wang did not address the court yesterday and would not answer questions from reporters after the hearing. Instead, she read a statement praising Falun Gong and condemning the Chinese government.
"I've devoted much of my time trying to stop the persecution of Falun Gong in China, especially the harvesting of organs," she said.