U.S. Lawmakers Urge Release of China Sect Leader

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Three U.S. senators have urged the U.S. attorney general to free the leader of a Chinese spiritual sect and to grant him political asylum in the United States, a Hong Kong human rights group said on Sunday.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms and New Hampshire Republican Bob Smith proposed to U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft (news - web sites) in writing that Zhang Hongbao should be released from detention in Guam, the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said in a statement.

Chinese versions of the letters were sent to Hong Kong's media by the locally-based information center. The U.S. officials were not immediately available to comment.

Zhang, leader of the Zhong Gong sect, has been in detention on the U.S.-administered Pacific island of Guam since he went there in January 2000 seeking political asylum.

In June, a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization 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 U.S. lawmakers requested a confirmation of the INS ruling and asked that Zhong be moved to Washington D.C., where he would be safer.

Along with the better-known Falun Gong (news - web sites) 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. Zhong Gong members say he has been treated inhumanely in detention.

To date, the United States has given him only ``protection status'' but not political asylum.