Leaders of Protestant sect in China get life terms

Reduced sentences linked to coming visit with Bush

October 11, 2002|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - Five leaders of an underground Protestant sect, spared execution by a Chinese court, received sentences of up to life in prison yesterday after a rare retrial on criminal charges, a human rights group said.

The unusual death penalty reprieve for the evangelicals comes two weeks before Chinese President Jiang Zemin visits President Bush at his Crawford, Texas, ranch. Analysts say the timing is no coincidence.

Bush has criticized China in the past for its tight controls on religion, and China often tries to soften its image on human rights just before U.S.-China summits.

"Because religious persecution is such a strong issue with the current administration, right before Jiang Zemin comes to visit the United States, they are particularly trying to avoid provoking the United States in such a sensitive area," said Xiao Qiang, executive director of New York-based Human Rights in China. "They are carefully trying to avoid criticism from the U.S. However, sentencing these people to life sentences is quite serious."

Gong Shengliang, founder of the South China Church, and Xu Fuming and Hu Yong of the banned religious group were given life sentences yesterday after a two-day retrial in Jingmen Intermediate People's Court, according to a statement issued by the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy.

Two other members who had been given delayed death sentences were sentenced to 15-year prison terms. All five plan to appeal, the center said.

The high court in central China's Hubei province, in an order issued last month, overturned death sentences handed down last December to Gong, Xu and Hu, as well as the delayed death sentences given to the two others, Gong Bangkun and the founder's niece, Li Ying.

Ruling on appeal, the court cited a lack of evidence and ordered new trials for the five defendants and 12 other members of the South China Church, the center said.

The December trial, held behind closed doors, included charges of rape and battery that rights activists have said were unsupported by evidence and were instead a tactic used to pursue the religious leaders.

This week's two-day retrial was apparently also a closed-door session. The Hong Kong-based center said prosecutors had dropped the "evil cult" charges, which can carry the sentence of death, and pursued the rape and battery charges.

Gong was convicted of rape and "intentional injury to others," and Xu and Hu were also convicted on the injury charge, according to the center's statement. Eight other defendants received sentences of less than 15 years, while four defendants, who had faced only the "evil cult" charges, were released.

"It's now becoming a more common practice to avoid sentencing them on subversion or endangering state security charges," Xiao said. "They simply frame them on other charges."

The retrial comes just after the release of the U.S. government's annual report on religious freedom around the world, which designated China as one of six nations considered most hostile to religion.

Religious groups in China can operate legally only under government restraints. The Communist Party views organized movements as a potential threat to its power and has sought to wipe out evangelical sects such as the South China Church.

Established in 1991, the South China Church now claims 50,000 members. It defied authorities by recruiting new followers and refusing to register officially, and it was targeted as a cult.

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