Mystic cult leader acquitted of fraud by High Court

Taiwan News/November 30, 2005

A mystic cult leader who gained fame for his claim that he could be in two places at one time and counted Premier Frank Hsieh as one of his followers, was found not guilty of defrauding his flock on Tuesday by a panel of High Court judges.

There was no concrete evidence to indicate that mystic Sung Chi-li used his "split body" pictures to cheat his followers for financial gain, the court ruled.

"His followers provided financial support to Sung because of their belief in his supernatural powers. It is hard to say that Sung and his disciple, Cheng Chen-tung, defrauded the followers with the pictures," the judges said in the ruling.

Through his images of a "split body," Sung claimed that he could appear in more than one place at a time. The mystic had tens of thousands of followers in Taiwan before he was accused by two former disciples and ex-Taipei City Councilor Chu Mei-feng of "fabricating the supernatural pictures" in 1996.

Sung still claimed earlier this year that last year he took Premier Frank Hsieh on a spiritual tour to Paris. The premier declined to confirm or deny Sung's claim, but he and his wife, Yu Fang-chi, have remained followers of Sung throughout these years.

The High Court judges acknowledged that two photographic professionals had testified to a lower court that portions of Sung's pictures were artificially produced. But they said that all of his followers testified to offering money to Sung out of their belief in his power to bring them peace of mind or solve supernatural problems.

Sung and his disciple Cheng were initially convicted by the Taipei District Court in 1997 on fraud charges and were both sentenced to seven years in jail for forging the photos to cheat followers, some of whom donated millions of Taiwan dollars to show their gratitude and respect.

In 2003, the High Court overturned the decision. The judges argued that law enforcement agencies should not attempt to prove or disprove self-proclaimed supernatural powers to determine whether a religious leader is guilty of fraud.

The High Court judges said in the case of Sung there was no victim of the fabricated pictures and therefore overturned the conviction. The High Court also cited the Constitution's ultimate protection for people's religious freedom in the 2003 verdict.

The Supreme Court ordered the High Court to review the case last August on appeal, and found that the two plaintiffs, Chiang Cheng and Chen Chiang Li-hua -- both ex-followers of Sung -- allegedly initiated the lawsuit against Sung and Cheng because of a personal feud.

The High Court delivered Tuesday's ruling amid clashes between Sung's followers and opponents of the mystic cult leader. A follower of Sung told a reporter with cable news station TVBS that, "there is no victim."

A Sung opponent then challenged the follower, asking, "Did you receive any advantages from Sung? Don't cheat other people; after that you will be cheated (by Sung)" outside the courthouse.

The opponents included Shang Chieh-mei, head of a civil group named "the association for improving clean religion." Shang said he denounced the High Court ruling in favor of Sung.

He also offered to "swallow my association's signboard immediately" if the cult leader could prove his magic powers in front of him.

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