July 7, 2006

China sentences sect members to death for murders

BEIJING (Reuters) - China sentenced three members of a
local Christian sect to death for the murder of followers of a
rival group and ordered likely life sentences for three other
members of the controversial underground religion.

The court in Shuangyashan in northeast China's Heilongjiang
province ordered the execution of Xu Shuangfu, the 60-year-old
founder of the "Three Grades of Servants," or Church of Truth,
and members Li Maoxing and Wang Jun.

Three others were given death sentences with a two-year
reprieve, a sentence that usually leads to life in prison.

Eleven other followers received prison sentences from three
to 15 years.

Since the end of the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution,
China's ruling Communist Party has allowed religion in
controlled settings, but it has faced constant challenges from
underground groups that reject its authority.

China outlawed the most dramatic spiritual threat to party
rule, the Falun Gong spiritual movement, in 1999.

Lawyers for the accused said the court judgment was dated
June 28 but sent to them only Wednesday. "It is legally
inappropriate to sentence them to death, and we will appeal,"
said Xu's defense lawyer Li Heping.

Court officials were not immediately available for comment.

Xu, also known as Xu Wenku, and the other members of the
small church were accused of murdering 20 people, mainly
members of the rival Oriental Lightning church, between 2002
and 2004.

Xu and others were also accused of defrauding others of 32
million yuan ($4 million).

Xu founded his group in the mid-1980s, combining strains of
Christian tradition with his own esoteric claims. It was also
banned as a cult in 1999, according to Chinese media accounts.

Prosecutors accused the Three Servants of brutally
murdering former members who left to join Oriental Lightning, a
rival Christian-inspired sect that was founded in central
China's Henan province.

Xu said Oriental Lightning was controlled by the Devil,
according to the Chinese magazine Phoenix Weekly.

Xu and the other two sentenced to death will appeal their
sentences, said his lawyer Li. He said was not sure about the
other defendants.