A Chinese court in central China has overturned a death sentence against five members of a banned Christian group. A human rights watchdog believes the decision was influenced by pressure from the United States over China's treatment of religions. The people are key followers of the South China Church, an outlawed religious group. They were sentenced to death in the city of Jingmen last December after being accused of undermining the state.
According to a human rights campaigner, a high court in Hubei Province overturned the death sentences on September 22, and ordered a new trial for the five to be held this week.
Frank Lu, the director of the China Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Hong Kong, says the overturning of the death penalty was unusual in China. Mr. Lu says the high court decided that there was too little evidence to justify the harsh punishment. Mr. Lu says the court decision was likely influenced by several factors. President Bush encouraged religious freedom in China during a visit to the country last February. It could also be a conciliatory gesture in the lead-up to Chinese President Jiang Zemin's visit to the United States several weeks from now. And Mr. Lu noted a report released recently by the U.S. Congressional Executive Commission on China, specifically criticizing the death sentence given to the founder of the South China Church.
News of the Hubei court ruling came a day after the U.S. government accused China and four other countries of severely repressing religious freedom.
Although any religion not sanctioned by the state is illegal in China, rights groups claim millions of people belong to underground churches and prayer groups. Beijing has labeled as many as 16 Christian groups "evil cults," and has given the same designation to groups like Falun Gong, a religion that combines traditional Chinese exercise with Buddhist beliefs. Falun Gong members claim their followers face persecution by Chinese authorities and that many have perished in prisons there.
China's Bureau of State Security arrested the South China Church followers in April 2001, shortly after naming the group an evil cult. The banned church says it has 50,000 followers in China.