Leader of banned Christian sect sentenced to life in prison on second trial

BEIJING - The five leaders of a banned Christian sect had been under death sentence, accused of running an "evil cult" aimed at the downfall of the communist state.

But when an appelate court overturned the convictions, citing a lack of evidence, and ordered a retrial, prosecutors quickly changed tack.

At the new trial, they brought charges of more familiar crimes, better grounded in the legal system and harder to disprove. Observers say the tactic is increasingly favored as an effective way of dealing with those perceived as troublemakers by the communist government.

On Thursday, sect leader Gong Shengliang was sentenced to life in prison for rape and battery in a second trial at the Jingmen Intermediate Court, according to the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, based in Hong Kong.

Two other sect leaders were sentenced to life for battery, and two others were given 15-year sentences on the same charges.

The defendants immediately said they would appeal, the center said.

The case highlights the restrictions placed on religious organizations in China, which permits worship only in the government-sanctioned church. Those who join unofficial congregations and sometimes unorthodox Protestant sects such as Gong's constantly risk harassment and detention.

Against that background, the Hubei Provincial High Court's Sept. 22 decision to overturn the convictions on charges including "using an evil cult to undermine the enforcement of the law," was extraordinary.

Observers said that might have resulted from a debate within the Chinese justice system over the appropriateness of vague, sweeping cult and state security charges.

"The methods are diversifying away from cult legislation and toward economic and criminal prosecutions as a way of attacking such groups," said Xiao Qing, Executive Director of New York-based Human Rights in China.

External pressure may also have been a factor.

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has repeatedly issued concerns over religious persecution in China. With Chinese President Jiang Zemin to make a visit to the United States this month, China may have wanted to temper its treatment of religious dissidents.

The new trial for Gong and the four others — co-defendants Li Ying, Xiu Fuming, Hu Yong and Gong Bangkun — began Wednesday, said a Beijing-based activist, Japheth Shaw.

Shaw said the lawyer for the group had been given no advance notice of the charges being brought or the evidence to be presented.

For the second trial, the cult charges were dropped, the center said. However, additional charges of rape and battery that were part of the first trial were refiled, and prosecutors again won a conviction on those accusations.

According to documents filed at the first trial, Gong was accused of raping several female sect members and ordering the beatings of followers who feuded with the church leadership over doctrine and finances.

Church followers said Gong, 46, denied the charges. They claimed police tortured women into testifying against him.

Gong established the South China Church in 1991 and it grew over a decade to encompass some 50,000 members spread through 10 provinces in eastern and central China.

China labeled the church an "evil cult," part of an ongoing campaign against the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual sect and other groups seen by the Communist Party's leadership as challenging its political monopoly.

Gong and his co-defendants were arrested by the Bureau of State Security in April 2001, and were convicted last December in a first trial.

In a telephone interview, Gong's younger sister said she and other relatives were beaten by police on Thursday when they tried to catch a glimpse of the defendants outside the Jingmen Intermediate Court.

"I was hit with a stick by a policeman until he knocked me to the ground. Then they pushed us all the way back, shouting and swearing," said the sister, who identified herself only as Miss Gong.

The court's press office said it had no information on the trial.

Court and government officials have declined all comment on the case, although it has been reported on extensively by highly reliable sources in the religious and human rights community. The retrial, like the original one, was apparently held behind closed doors.