Two women sect leaders released from camps

AFP-TWO women leaders of the banned Zhong Gong spiritual sect were freed from labour camps on the mainland, two months before the end of their two-year sentences, a Hong Kong-based rights group said yesterday.

Cheng Yaqin was released from the Baoding, Hebei province reform-through-labour camp on Sunday.

Deqing Zhuoma was released from a labour camp near Lhasa, Tibet, in recent days, the Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy said yesterday.

Both women had served as regional leaders for the group and had been arrested in September 1999 after simultaneous crackdowns on the Zhong Gong group as well as the better-known Falun Gong, the human rights centre said.

The women were released early after an active letter-writing campaign by supporters from around the world, led by exiled Zhong Gong leader Zhang Hongbao.

He had pressured the Central Government as well as the United Nations over their incarceration, the centre said.

Beijing views the two groups as ``evil cults'' and has spent two years trying to smash the groups that advocate traditional Chinese group meditation and breathing exercises, while urging followers to lead a clean and healthy life.

Tens of millions of Chinese began practising traditional breathing exercises, known as qigong, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

But they attracted the attention of Beijing leaders with huge followings and building up imposing economic empires.

The Chinese Communist Party has called the Falun Gong the biggest threat to China's political stability since the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests.