BEIJING -- Three men and a woman accused of being top leaders of the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement were given prison sentences yesterday ranging from seven to 18 years, including the two harshest terms for Chinese political dissidents in five years.
The severe sentences, issued by a Beijing court after a one-day trial, and their prominent announcement on national television were clearly intended to show the authorities' determination to crush Falun Gong.
The movement has gained millions of enthusiastic followers in recent years. It was officially condemned and outlawed as an "evil cult" in July after it held unauthorized demonstrations, including one by 10,000 people who surrounded the Communist leaders' compound in Beijing on April 25.
That silent demonstration -- and the evident appeal of Falun Gong across society and even among members of the Communist Party -- seems to have touched a raw nerve in the secretive leadership.
All four of those sentenced yesterday were party members, with the most severe term, 18 years, given to Li Chang, 59, an official in the Police Ministry.
Wang Zhiwen, 50, an engineer in a company of the Railways Ministry, was sentenced to 16 years.
Ji Liewu, 36, a manager of a Hong Kong subsidiary of a government metals company, was sentenced to 12 years. Yao Jie, 40, leader of the Communist Party committee of a large real estate company in Beijing, was sentenced to seven years.
The convictions involved charges of "organizing and using the cult organization to undermine the implementation of laws, causing human deaths by organizing and using the cult organization, and illegally obtaining state secrets," said an announcement last night by the New China News Agency.
A dynamic offshoot of Chinese qigong, which is said to harness invisible forces to promote health and well-being, Falun Gong had been popular among retirees and middle-aged women, who gathered in urban parks to practice its slow, meditative exercises.
But the membership of officials and party members was a sign of the broad appeal that so frightened the national leadership.
The announcement said that Yao had received a lighter sentence because she had only been an accessory to the "principal culprits" and had expressed "sincere remorse." It said Li had also been repentant and that his 18-year sentence was lighter than it might otherwise have been.
Previous accounts in the official press said that all four had been accused of being key organizers of the surprise demonstration in April.
Li and Wang are said to have played especially important roles, plotting with the group's founder, Li Hongzhi. The founder lives in exile in New York but has admitted that he quietly visited Beijing just before the April protest.
The peaceful but brazen gathering was a protest against what followers believed was the growing persecution of their group. It also revealed the group's capacity to mobilize people from various provinces, right under the noses of the police. That shocked Chinese leaders, who were already worried about threats to social stability from unemployed workers and angry farmers.
Officials say that more than 150 Falun Gong members have been formally charged with crimes, but only a few have gone to trial, and yesterday's prosecutions are likely to be among the most important.
Unknown hundreds of followers have been sent without trial to labor camps for "re-education" while thousands, including many who converged on Beijing in the fall to protest the banning of the group, were temporarily detained or harassed.