Members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement are undertaking a "long march" through Switzerland to raise awareness about the treatment of its members in China, and to urge the Swiss government to be more vociferous in its condemnation of Beijing's actions.
Marchers are set to meet up outside the federal parliament building in Bern on August 23, where they will hand over a letter to the government. Last week, they set out from Geneva, Zurich, Basel and St Gallen.
The walk may be considerably shorter than the Long March undertaken by members of the Chinese Communist Party in the 1930s, but the Swiss Falun Gong members hope it will alert the public and politicians alike to what they regard as a worsening situation in China.
"The Swiss government has stated a good position, but we think it could do more," said Dominique Nardin, a Falun Gong member taking part in the march.
Switzerland, along with many other western countries, has been accused of tempering its criticism of China's human rights record because of the implications this could have for business interests in one of the world's fastest-growing markets.
"Of course, business links are important, but we want the politicians to state clearly and publicly that they are against this repression. They need to say what is their priority," Nardin told swissinfo.
Olympics in Beijing as catalyst for crackdown
The Geneva marchers will pass through Lausanne and Fribourg on their way to Bern. Those coming from Zurich will walk through Aarau and Solothurn, where they will meet up with the Basel group.
The march has been organised at short notice because, says Falun Gong, the Chinese government has stepped up its repressive measures against the movement since Beijing was named as the venue for the 2008 Olympic Games last month.
The Chinese deputy Prime Minister, Li Lanqing, has been quoted as saying that the decision to grant China the games was a sign that the international community approved of the crackdown against Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa, as it also known.
"Since he said that, we've noticed that they've started executing Falun Gong practitioners in groups, and that the methods of torture and execution have become worse," said another Geneva-based Falun Gong member, Lee Kye Ja.
She says a group of 15 women were tortured to death in a labour camp in the city of Harbin. The authorities described it as a mass suicide. Ten male Falun Gong prisoners also died together. Lee says there have been recent reports of people being burned alive or dragged along by motorcycles.
"It's becoming more and more inhuman. It's unacceptable," she said.
"Evil cult" says Chinese government
Falun Gong claims that more than 50,000 of its practitioners have been arrested since the Chinese crackdown began two years ago. Of that number, 263 of them had been killed. Thousands, it says, have been sent to forced labour camps and psychiatric hospitals.
The Chinese government describes Falun Gong as an evil cult, whose leaders have deceived the millions who follow their teachings.
Sun Congben, press attaché at the Chinese embassy in Switzerland dismissed Falun Gong's allegations as lies.
"What they are saying is completely untrue. Falun Gong members are our citizens - why would we harm them? We just help them get out of this sect."
But he added that "stability is of vital importance to China [and that] those who threaten China's stability must be removed from society".
China's alleged persecution of Falun Gong members has been widely reported in the West, but the public knows very little about the movement.
"That is another aim of our march - to inform the public, because the Chinese government has launched a big misinformation campaign in the West against the Falun Gong," Nardin said.
"When people understand what the Falun Gong is, they're OK with us. If we give them correct information, we'll have more support for our cause," she added.
Adept at publicity
Falun Gong has proved very adept at garnering publicity for its cause outside China, leading to speculation about the organisation's real motives.
Peter Achten, a Swiss journalist based in Beijing, said that the movement's literature suggested "it is like a cult or a sect".
He added that although there was no doubt that Falun Gong members had been subject to repression and torture by Chinese police, the campaign against the movement had nothing to do with abuse of religious freedom, as Falun Gong claims.
"Falun Gong are very well organised, and it is this that the government is afraid of, and why it has outlawed the organisation. Beijing is also afraid because Falun Gong has such a huge following, and this is because the Communist party has no ideology to offer the people."
Because Falun Gong has no hierarchical structure and no membership, it is hard to quantify the number of adherents in Switzerland, but best estimates put the figure at around 500.
by Roy Probert