11/15/2006, 00.00
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Death sentence for three Protestant leaders upheld

They have been convicted of murder and theft but their lawyers claim they were condemned without proof and on the basis of "confessions" extracted under torture. Most probably they will be executed in mid-December to prevent the Supreme Court from reviewing their case.

Beijing (AsiaNews) – The unjust death sentence handed down to leaders of the Protestant group "Three Grades of Servants" last July has been upheld on appeal. Most probably they will be executed in mid-December to prevent the Supreme Court from reviewing their case.

This was denounced by China Aid Association (CAA), a US-based non-governmental organisation that lobbies for religious freedom in China.

The first verdict was handed down on 7 July this year by the Intermediate People's Court of Shuangyashan in the eastern Heilongjiang Province. In the trial, the police brought charges against 17 people: the three leaders of the group, Xu Shuangfu (60 years), Li Maoxing (55) and Wang Jun (36) were sentenced to death for murder.

Also convicted on the same charges and condemned to death were Zhang Min (35), Zhu Lixin (37) and Ben Zhonghai; their sentences were suspended. The judge condemned the remaining eleven to sentences ranging between three to 15 years imprisonment.

According to the government's accusations, Xu – leader of a Protestant group with more than 500,000 members nationwide – killed, together with another 16 convicted members of his group, 20 leaders of the Eastern Lightning group. He was also accused of embezzling over 32 million yuan (around 3.2 million euros)."

The Eastern Lightening group, although it claims to be Christian, is widely acknowledged by Protestants to be a "cult of criminals".   The group's founder, founded a woman named Zheng, claims to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and many of her "followers" are involved in suspect affairs.

The defence lawyers – Li Heping of the Gaobo Longhua Firm, Beijing, and Zhang Lihui of the Beijing Branch of the Xingyun Law Office –said their clients were not guilty based upon the government's evidence. Their confessions were obtained by torture, a practice the Chinese government itself has admitted is "widespread" in its prisons.

The second trial was held from 17 to 19 October in the Provincial Higher Court. The court allowed one relative of each accused man to be present at the trial and confirmed the death sentence in the presence of officials of the Communist Party and the Religious Affairs Department.

Analysts believe the appeal was conducted with such haste because the provincial judges wanted to prevent the three men from appealing to the Supreme People's Court, which from 1 January next will be the only organism allowed to hand down death sentences.

Beijing allows the practice of Protestant Christianity only within the Movement of the Three Autonomies (MTA), born in 1950 after Mao seized power and the expulsion of foreign missionaries and church leaders, including Chinese ones.

Official statistics reveal that there are 10 million official Protestants in China, all belonging to the MTA. Unofficial Protestants, who meet in unregistered "house churches", are estimated to reach more than 50 million. Throughout last year, the government arrested 1958 pastors and faithful of unofficial Protestant churches.

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