Zhong Gong leader's whereabouts stay secret-lawyer

WASHINGTON, April 18 (Reuters) - The exact U.S. whereabouts of the leader of a spiritual sect that has been banned in China are being kept secret because of concerns for his security, one of his lawyers, Robert Shapiro, said on Wednesday.

Shapiro said in Los Angeles there had been attempts on the life of Zhang Hongbao, leader of the banned Zhong Gong sect, in the past several years he has been outside China.

Although he was at little risk in the United States, Shapiro said, "I don't want to take any chances."

Zhang 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' exile outside China.

The U.S. government would not comment on Zhang's case, in line with its policy on pending asylum cases. However under the terms of his parole he must notify the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) of his movements.

Shapiro said Zhang, 47, had arrived in the mainland United States but would not elaborate further.

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 June, an 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.

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

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.

"We're very confident he's going to get asylum," Shapiro said.

The Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights & Democracy said in a statement on Wednesday that Chinese authorities have embarked on a nationwide crackdown on meditation groups which has resulted in the closure of 185 meditation groups in the central province of Shanxi alone.

20:54 04-18-01

Copyright 2001 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.