BEIJING — Police in central China detained 15 parents for a violent protest over factory pollution that left hundreds of local children with lead poisoning, and accused them of links to the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, villagers said Wednesday.
Villagers mocked the accusation, saying authorities were using the charge to take revenge against parents involved in the Aug. 8 unrest in Hunan province's Wenping township, that broke out after more than 1,300 children were poisoned by emissions from a manganese processing plant. Falun Gong practitioners are relentlessly persecuted by Chinese authorities.
Anger is growing in China over public safety scandals in which children have been the main victims. The ruling Communist Party is worried mass protests will threaten the country's social stability and challenge its grip on power.
The Wugang city public security bureau, which oversees Wenping, issued a notice Tuesday saying "cult members with ulterior motives" led a few villagers to block roads, attack government offices and damage public property, 40-year-old resident Dai Zuoyi said.
Police said 15 people were being held and urged the "Falun Gong practitioners to turn themselves in as soon as possible," said Dai, who read the announcement to The Associated Press over the phone.
"When I saw this notice, I laughed till my stomach hurt," Dai said. "There have never been any Falun Gong followers in Wenping. This is clearly a reprisal attack against villagers."
A notice posted on the Web site of the Wugang city government last week said Chinese and foreign Falun Gong members were spreading false rumors and "instigating the public to cause trouble" in response to the lead poisoning incident. It did not mention detentions.
Dai said his brother-in-law Li Changye was among the parents detained this week. Li, 40, was among hundreds of residents who blocked roads leading to the Wugang Manganese Smelting Plant, Dai said.
Both Dai's and Li's sons, aged 5 months and 6 years, have excessive levels of lead in their blood, Dai said. Lead poisoning can damage the nervous and reproductive systems and cause high blood pressure and memory loss.
The Wugang government's spokesman, who would give only his surname, Xia, denied that any Wenping residents had been detained.
"We have not taken any measures against the parents. But if anybody has broken the law, their cases will be investigated by the police," Xia said by phone.
He said city government officials have recently received phone calls from out of town by people who personally attacked the officials. Based on "previous experience," the police think they might be Falun Gong members, Xia said, without going into details.
The Wenping incident was one of three cases of lead poisoning involving large numbers of children last month. The first case involved more than 600 children living near a lead smelter in northwestern Shaanxi province, while the latest one occurred in Yunnan in the southwest, with about 200 children sickened.
A Falun Gong spokeswoman condemned the government actions, saying that instead of addressing the source of grievances, authorities are "spinning them in an effort to further vilify" practitioners.
"Since the Chinese regime first launched its campaign to eradicate Falun Gong, they have often taken incidents of unrest or violence in the country, and through state-run media, framed them on Falun Gong," said Gail Rachlin, a New York-based spokeswoman for Falun Dafa Information Center.