BEIJING (AP) - A leading member of the Falun Gong sect was sentenced today to 12 years in prison, and three others received lesser sentences, in the first trial for what China's government calls an "evil cult."
Similar trials appear to await dozens and possibly hundreds of other Falun Gong practitioners who have been rounded up since communist authorities began cracking down on the multimillion-member group in July.
Song Yuesheng was convicted by a court in the southern island province of Hainan of "using an evil cult to obstruct the law," said Fu Yu, a provincial government spokeswoman.
Also convicted were Jiang Shilong, who was sentenced to seven years in prison; Chen Yuan, who was sentenced to three years, and Liang Yulin, who was sentenced to two, the spokeswoman said.
She said Song also was convicted of illegal organizing and attempted escape.
The trial at the Haikou Intermediate People's Court lasted seven hours, court officials said.
The trial came two weeks after China's national legislature approved harsher punishments of cult members. The prosecutor's agency then issued a directive to speed up indictments of some key Falun Gong members.
Song and his fellow defendants were accused of organizing a gathering of 183 Falun Gong members on Aug. 8 in Hainan, state media have reported.
The government alleges Falun Gong members staged several hundred such illegal gatherings. In addition, police recently have detained hundreds of Falun Gong believers who tried to appeal to government officials in Beijing.
Only the top state news media - China Central Television and the Xinhua News Agency - were allowed to cover the trial in Hainan, according to a court official who gave his name as Mr. Chen. Local government media were barred.
Falun Gong is an exercise and meditation movement that was popular throughout China.
Founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, a former government clerk now living in New York, Falun Gong combines slow-motion exercises and ideas drawn from Buddhism, Taoism and Li's own theories.
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