China yesterday dismissed reports of the torture and death of Falun Gong practitioners in custody, claiming detainees were treated like patients in the hands of doctors. 'They are treated like teachers treat their students . . . the same as doctors treating patients or parents with their children,' said Liu Jing, the senior Communist Party official heading the crackdown on the movement Beijing brands an evil cult. Mr Liu accused the United States of making 'wanton accusations' about China's crackdown and of 'turning a blind eye to the danger and harm caused by [Falun Gong leader] Li Hongzhi and a deaf ear to the heretical fallacies preached by Li Hongzhi'. He denied reports that more than 100 followers had died in custody. Mr Liu, head of the State Council Office for Prevention and Handling of Cults, set up last November, compared the office's efforts to the fight against drug addiction and trafficking. 'The Falun Gong cult is the same as a spiritual drug,' he said. 'It does as much harm to its practitioners as drugs. These people are in a different mental state from ordinary people.' Mr Liu appealed for understanding on how the practitioners were treated. He said visiting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, who has spoken up about the treatment of Falun Gong supporters, 'had too little understanding of the Falun Gong cult'. So far, 324 hardened members of the group had been tried and sentenced by courts, Mr Liu said. He would neither confirm nor deny reports by rights groups that about 120 members had died in police custody or that more than 10,000 had been sentenced without trial to labour camps. Mr Liu blamed Li Hongzhi for the fate of Falun Gong practitioners who committed suicide, including the one who died when five set themselves alight in Tiananmen Square. Mr Liu said 136 followers had killed themselves at the instigation of the cult's leader. The People's Daily on Monday called for the elimination of the Falun Gong cult and rewarded 110 organisations and 271 people for helping to 'wipe out the cancer of Falun Gong'. Mrs Robinson expressed confidence China was poised to take steps to improve its human rights image as she left after a series of meetings and the first UN human rights workshop held in China. Officials sought to assure her that they were taking steps to ratify two UN conventions, abolish re-education-through-labour camps and allow UN rapporteurs to investigate compliance with two international treaties China has signed, including one on torture. Mrs Robinson said prisoners in labour camps had not benefited from due process before being locked up. However, she said the Chinese had indicated a willingness to review the issue of torture and the length of some sentences. During her visit, international experts brought in by the UN took part in a workshop to look at how China could better deal with minor crimes, which are handled under the re-education-through-labour system. Mrs Robinson, stressing the absence of freedom of religion, association or expression, repeated her comments from previous visits in saying 'there is a very serious human rights situation in China'.