China defends sentence on Bible importer, vows crackdown on 'cults'

China has defended the two-year sentence handed down to a Hong Kong businessman for importing Bibles into the country, insisting freedom of religion was respected by authorities.

However, Beijing also warned it would clamp down on so-called "evil cults", a blanket term it uses to describe a series of religious or spiritual organisations which have attracted the ire of authorities.

"Concerning the case of Li Guangqiang, the People's Court of Fuqing (city), Fujian province, tried the case yesterday and he was sentenced to two years for illegal business practices and fined 150,000 yuan," foreign ministry spokesman Kong Quan said, confirming reports by observers at Monday's trial.

"China is a country governed by laws, the Chinese court tried the case in accordance with the evidence and in accordance with the law," he said.

Kong said that freedom of religious beliefs was protected in China, but that police had ample leeway under the law to clamp down on "evil cults".

"The Chinese constitution has clear provisions to safeguard China's freedom of religious belief in accordance with the law," he said.

"So far as evil cults are concerned, we will crack down on cults in accordance with the criminal law and the explanations given by the Supreme People's Court."

Li, a member of Chinese Christian evangelical group the Shouters, was detained by police in May as he transported about 16,000 copies of the New Testament into southern China's Fujian province.

Two mainland citizens, Lin Xifu and Yu Zhudi, accused of helping the businessman, were each sentenced to three years in prison at the half-day trial.

The three men were convicted of "illegal business activities", rather than the original, far more serious, charge of crimes related to "evil cults" which can carry the death penalty.

The charges were reduced in the wake of international concern about the case, particularly from the United States.

However Kong refused to comment on concerns expressed Monday by the US State Department that China was not adhering to international norms on respect for freedom of religion.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Washington was troubled that people had been arrested for making religious materials available to Christians in China.

"We would expect China to live up to international standards on freedom of religious expression and freedom of conscience that are embodied in the international human rights instruments."

China maintains that all citizens enjoy religious freedom, but they are heavily restricted to worshipping in state-sanctioned churches.

In July 1999 China banned the Buddhist- and Taoist based Falungong group as an "evil cult", and has also cracked down on a series of other similar "Qigong" groups as well as churches.

Human rights groups estimate that hundreds of Falungong followers have been sentenced to jail terms and tens of thousands sent to labour camps.