Twelve other members were sentenced to between two years and life imprisonment by the Intermediate People's Court in Jingmen city, central Hubei province, a criminal court official told AFP.Earlier the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy had reported that only the church's founder Gong Shengliang had been sentenced to death and his niece, Li Ying, sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve. The court announced the verdict on December 29, the court official said, while legal proceedings had been going on in the closed-door trial since December 18. Founder Gong, 46, was sentenced to death for "using an evil sect to harm the implementation of the law" and the crimes of "premeditated assault" and "crimes of rape and hooliganism", the official said. All 17 defendants were sentenced for the same crimes.Gong had appealed to the High Court of Hubei, according to the rights center.
His niece, Li Ying, 36, had also been given the death penalty with a two-year suspension for having printed and distributed, since 1994, 48 editions of the clandestine publication "Huanan Zhuankan" ("South China Special Issue"), with a total of 500,000 copies. Li was charged with having caused "intentional damage" and having committed a crime within an organised gang, the Center said.Under Chinese law death sentences with a reprieve will be commuted to life if the reprieve period is served with good behaviour.The South China Church is believed to have some 50,000 members across 10 provinces in China.
According to the rights center, the group was classified by China's Public Security Bureau in April as a "sect" after which the 17 members were arrested. At least 16 clandestine Protestant church groups are considered by Beijing to be "sects". In 1999, Liu Jiaguo, guru of the Zhushenjiao Church of the Supreme Spirit, was executed for rape in the province of Henan. His sect was said to have 100,000 followers.