Guam legislature urges release of China sect leader

HONG KONG, April 15 (Reuters) - Guam's legislature has called for the release of the leader of a spiritual sect that is banned in China from detention in the U.S.-administered Pacific island, a Hong Kong human rights group said on Sunday.

Zhang Hongbao, leader of the Zhong Gong sect, has been detained on Guam since he went there in January 2000 seeking political asylum.

The island's lawmakers passed a resolution on April 10 for Zhang's immediate and unconditional release, the Information Center for Human Rights & Democracy said in a statement.

It said copies of the resolution had been sent to U.S. officials including President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

"Mr Zhang Hongbao's confinement on Guam is inconsistent with the traditional Chamorro belief that freedom is fundamental to life itself, representing an embarrassment to the people of Guam since the injustice continues on our island," said the document, a copy of which was sent to Reuters by the information centre.

"The fundamental right to freedom of religious belief and worship is severely restricted in the People's Republic of China," it said.

Officials from the Guam legislature were not immediately available to comment.

In June, a U.S. Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS) court told Zhang that he would be given political asylum. But confirmation was delayed as INS authorities studied a Chinese embassy demand that he be denied asylum.

The information centre said Guam's federal court would make a ruling on Zhang's petition for "habeas corpus" on April 18.

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."

Beijing has accused Zhang of raping followers, charges which his group dismisses as fabrication.

Zhang went to Guam after six years' exile outside China. To date, the United States has given him only "protection status" but not political asylum.

04:59 04-15-01

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