In an escalation of the government campaign to crush the Falun Gong spiritual movement, China's Communist Party signaled today that it will soon put key leaders of the group on trial.

A circular released by the official New China News Agency said that "the few organizers . . . who damaged social stability and committed crimes will be punished in accordance with the law."

The Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China said more than 50 organizers of Falun Gong are expected to face prosecution. It said that lawyers throughout the country had been told they must apply for permission from local judicial affairs departments before representing arrested followers--a requirement that violates China's criminal procedure law.

China banned the group on July 22, calling it the most significant political threat to the government since the 1989 democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Before the ban, the group was estimated to have more than 10 million members, many of whom were military, police or party members. Western diplomats say many of those people have gone underground.

The government vowed today to intensify its grass-roots efforts to force followers to cut ties with the exercise and meditation group. It said China's vast network of neighborhood committees would provide "greater care and help" for those who remain "deceived" by Li Hongzhi, the group's U.S.-based founder.

In an acknowledgment that many believers have refused to give up Falun Gong, the circular said local officials are organizing "work groups" to buttress efforts "in the countryside where the numbers of practitioners are relatively high."

A Western diplomat said China appeared to be moving into a new stage in its crackdown against Falun Gong.

"The final phase is the big show trials," said a Western diplomat. He said the move could harm China's international image. "If you try 20, 40, 60, 200 of the leading Falun Gongers . . . the West is going to focus more on the abuses of the government than the zaniness of the cult."

Li teaches that cultivating an "orb of energy" in one's belly will lead to physical and spiritual health, and even supernatural powers.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin called for the crackdown on Falun Gong after more than 10,000 followers surrounded the red-walled Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing in a peaceful sit-in on April 25.

Fearing a backlash from the ban, the government has treated most ordinary followers relatively leniently. Practitioners are required to certify to the government that they have "cut ties" with the group. Those who resist are treated harshly.

China announced last week that police had shut down a Falun Gong Web site run by a computer store employee in the northeastern city of Changchun. The site issued an "emergency appeal" calling on followers to head to Beijing to protest the government ban.

Thousands who protested after the ban was announced were detained, although most have been released. But dozens of key organizers, such as Li Chang, a former official in the Ministry of Public Security who was a top aide to Li Hongzhi, and Wang Zhiwen, formerly of the Ministry of Railways, are expected to face heavy sentences.