Zhonggong leader says extradition to China means execution

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands, April 5 (AFP) -China wants a controversial spiritual leader back so they can execute him, according to the top American lawyer who will act for him in a court hearing Friday.

Zhang Hongbao, the founder of the Zhonggong spiritual group, has been in jail in the US territory of Guam since January last year after he entered with a false visa.

The Immigration and Naturalisation Service denied his application for political asylum in September but he is seeking the right to stay in the United States pending an appeal.

A US District Court in Hagatna was to hear his application Friday.

Los Angeles attorney Robert Shapiro, acting for Zhang, said he was confident his client would be released from custody.

Shapiro, noted for his involvement in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, has been working on the case for more than three months.

"Hes being unlawfully held based on false and fraudulent charges brought forth by the Peoples Republic of China, simply because theyre going to have him returned to their country for the purpose of execution.

"Its clear in our investigation that these charges were false, and the State Department has verified that these charges are unreasonable. And it is not uncommon for political dissidents to face similar charges to get them back to China.

"This is a case of international significance," Shapiro said.

"It involves human rights, which I am very sensitive to, and its a case where a person who was exercising his own beliefs regarding meditation, regarding exercise, regarding spirit, has been persecuted by the Peoples Republic of China.

Shapiro said Zhang had been jailed for 13 months.

"Im optimistic that well be able to change that; that justice will prevail, and that he will be released immediately on parole."

Zhang, 46, founded the Zhonggong movement, which claims 38 million followers in China, in the early 1990s. The mystical movement is similar to the better known Falungong group.

Both are rooted in traditional Chinese martial arts and philosophy. Their growth in recent years and ability to mobilize large numbers of people have unnerved the communist authorities.

Zhang fled China, reportedly for fear of his life, after the government labelled the group an "evil cult" and began cracking down on its members.

The Chinese government claims that Zhang raped female members of his group, even releasing to the media details surrounding the rape charges by providing statements by rape victims, the victims photographs, arrest warrants and other documents.

Zhang and his assistant Yan Qingxin were caught entering Guams airport in January last year with fake visas. He has been in custody since then.

Shapiro said that if granted freedom, Zhang would be heading to Washington for safety reasons.

"Our desire clearly is that he goes to the (American) mainland for security purposes," Shapiro said. "We believe that the U.S. is the only place in the entire world where he can be absolutely safe."

Shapiro said Zhang was doing well and was very positive about the outcome of the hearing.

"For a man who has gone through what he has, for his spirits to be so high, for him to be so optimistic, for him to believe so much in America and American democracy, make me feel like this is a very important job, and a very important person."