US grants asylum to banned China sect

HONG KONG, June 15 (Reuters) - The United States government has granted political asylum to the leader of a spiritual sect banned in China, a Hong Kong-based human rights body said on Friday.

The founder of the Zhong Gong sect, Zhang Hongbao, was granted asylum by the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeal on Wednesday, reversing a previous ruling, the Information Centre for Human Rights & Democracy said in a statement.

The move signalled the end of Zhang's seven years in exile, and could spell a new irritant in soured Sino-U.S. ties.

Beijing has accused Zhang of raping followers, which his group dismisses as fabrication, and angrily demanded earlier this year that the United States repatriate him.

The Board of Immigration Appeals said China's charges were not credible, as the alleged victim only reported the incident 10 years later, the centre said.

Zhang, 47, started the group in 1987 in China and built up a following of 38 million people by 1990, the centre said.

He fled China to southeast Asia in 1994 after Beijing began cracking down on the sect and its members.

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."

Last September, Zhang fled to U.S.-administered Guam seeking political asylum.

U.S. State Department and White House officials said they had no information on Zhang's status.

The Hong Kong group said Zhang should be able to become a U.S. permanent resident by June next year.

02:09 06-15-01

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