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.
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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.