Chinese court jails four for temple fire that killed 40

Four farmers have been sentenced to prison in connection with a fire that killed 40 women in a makeshift bamboo temple, China announced Thursday.

The Feb. 15 disaster in Haining, a city southwest of Shanghai, occurred the same day as a shopping mall fire in China's northeast which killed 53 people.

The twin disasters were an embarrassing setback for government efforts to improve the country's disastrous public safety record.

Investigators said the temple in a village on the outskirts of Haining, in Zhejiang province, caught fire after worshippers lit candles and burned fake paper money in a traditional ritual meant to smooth the path of the spirits of relatives after death.

Victims ranged in age from 40 to 84.

The four farmers were convicted Wednesday of organizing the event and were sentenced to terms ranging from five years and nine months to six years, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

According to earlier reports, one of the farmers, Chen Jianliang, was the only man inside the temple at the time of the fire.

The farmers were charged with arson, but there was no indication the fire was set intentionally.

Chinese courts regularly sentence defendants to death for deliberate fire deaths.

Xinhua identified the other farmers as Zhou Hezhen, Lu Zhenbao and Lu Juanying. Earlier reports said worshippers paid 1 yuan (12 cents) each to take part in the ritual.

Such makeshift temples are common in China, where the government allows only state-supervised worship and bans observance of traditional folk beliefs. After the fire in Haining, a report on state television blamed "negligence and cult-like superstitious activities.''

Villagers said the bamboo temple was built on the site of a former brick temple that was demolished by local officials.

The mayor of Haining resigned over the fire and five other officials were punished.

Two weeks before the temple fire, 37 people were killed in a stampede during a festival in Beijing celebrating the Lunar New Year.

In December, a leak of toxic natural gas at a well in the western region of Chongqing killed 243 people. Oil company employees face criminal charges of dismantling safety features and mishandled drilling equipment.