China sentences Falungong follower to three years in jail: lawyer

Beijing, China - The wife of a man who died in police custody in China ahead of the Beijing Olympics was sentenced to prison on Tuesday for supporting the outlawed Falungong spiritual group, her lawyer said.

A Beijing court jailed Xu Na for three years for "using a heretical organisation to undermine the implementation of the law," lawyer Cheng Hai told AFP, referring to Falungong, which was banned in 1999.

"During her trial Xu plead not guilty and cited the freedom of religious belief guaranteed by (China's) constitution," Cheng said.

"We will appeal the verdict."

Xu and her husband, Yu Zhou, were detained at a roadside police check point ahead of the Beijing Olympics when authorities discovered they had material published by Falungong, according to Cheng.

Xu was convicted of possessing and intending to distribute 53 documents and eight computer disks of Falungong material, he said.

Beijing Chongwen district court, where Cheng said the trial took place, refused to comment on Xu's case when contacted by AFP.

According to the US-based Falun Dafa Information Centre, Xu, 40, previously served five years in prison for her support of the spiritual group.

Eleven days after their arrests, Xu's 42-year-old husband was pronounced dead at the Beijing detention centre where he was being held, it said, calling him a victim of state oppression ahead of the Beijing Games.

Cheng also said Yu died in custody.

"There are suspicions that he was beaten to death while in prison, but so far we have been unable to collect any evidence," Cheng said of Yu, once a well-known folk musician.

The detention centre in Beijing's Tongzhou district named by Cheng and the information centre denied any knowledge of the case.

"We know nothing about this person or his wife," a person answering the phone told AFP on Tuesday.

Falungong, which is loosely based on Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian philosophies, was founded in 1992.

The sect grew to include tens of millions of followers in 1999, prompting the government to ban it as an "evil cult".

At the time the government said the group was the biggest threat to China's political stabilty since the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests.