China demands U.S. send back sect leader

BEIJING (Reuters) - The Chinese Foreign Ministry demanded on Thursday that the United States repatriate the leader of a spiritual sect that has been banned in China, where he is accused of violent crimes and could face the death penalty. "According to international practice, the United States should promptly return Zhang Honggbao to China," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue told a news conference. She said China had presented to the United States evidence of that Zhang, leader of the outlawed Zhong Gong sect, had committed rape, assault and murder. Zhang's group, which claims 30 million followers, dismisses the charges as fabrication. Along with the better-known Falun Gong spiritual movement, Zhong Gong has been banned in China as an "evil cult", accused of "using feudal superstition to deceive the masses". Zhang, 47, was released from a Guam jail on Tuesday on "immigration parole" 15 months after arriving on the U.S. Pacific island territory seeking political asylum. He apparently has spent six years outside China. In a defiant letter to Chinese democracy activists after his release, Zhang wrote: "Using criminal allegations and libel is habitual and routine against dissidents of the Chinese Communist regime." He vowed to press China to release jailed political prisoners, Falun Gong and Zhong Gong followers, Christians and ethnic minority activists from Buddhist Tibet and Muslim Xinjiang. ASYLUM CASE PENDING Last June, a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) judge told Zhang he would be given political asylum. But confirmation was delayed as INS authorities studied a Chinese embassy demand that the request be denied. In September the INS judge denied Zhang asylum but granted "wrongful withholding," allowing him to remain in the United States indefinitely, but not releasing him from jail. Both the U.S. government and Zhang have appealed the September ruling. Zhang's lawyers hope the two sides can come to an agreement on granting asylum, however, because the appeals process could take years. One of Zhang's lawyers, Robert Shapiro, said on Wednesday the sect leader's whereabouts were being kept secret because there had been attempts on his life of in the past several years he has been outside China. Shapiro voiced confidence Zhang would get asylum in the United States -- a move which would antagonise China. China is angry that the United States has refused to repatriate Falun Gong leader Li Hongzhi and that the United States has criticised China's harsh crackdown on the group. The Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights & Democracy said in a statement on Wednesday Chinese authorities had embarked on a nationwide crackdown on meditation groups which has resulted in the closure of 185 groups in the central province of Shanxi alone.