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China Frees Bible Smuggler - 2002-02-10

A Hong Kong man freed after being jailed for smuggling Bibles into China thanked President Bush for his support during the ordeal, and the U.S. government welcomed Lai Kwong-keung's release.

Lai Kwong-keung expressed his appreciation for President Bush's concern while he was in a Chinese jail. But at a Hong Kong news conference Sunday, Mr. Lai said he thinks Mr. Bush's comments did not necessarily speed his release.

A Chinese court released Mr. Lai on medical grounds, and sent him home to Hong Kong Saturday. Mr. Lai suffers from hepatitis.

The 38-year-old Hong Kong businessman was convicted of improperly bringing thousands of Bibles into China. He was fined $18,000 dollars and had just begun serving a two-year prison sentence. The court said Mr. Lai could serve part of his sentence out of jail "under surveillance" in Hong Kong, but Hong Kong officials say they have no intention of bothering him.

Mr. Lai admits he smuggled the Bibles, saying there is a need for the Christian holy book in China. Mr. Lai says his two-year sentence was reasonable and that he knew smuggling the Bibles was illegal. He also says he will not try to do it again.

President Bush expressed concern about the case and had asked the U.S. State Department to look into the matter. In Beijing, a U.S. embassy statement said Washington has been working for Mr. Lai's release and welcomes Beijing's action.

The release comes just weeks before a visit to Beijing by President Bush for talks that are expected to include discussions of China's human rights practices.

China allows only state-approved worship and tries to crush independent religious and political groups it considers threats to public order or Communist Party rule.

Mr. Lai was detained last May after bringing Bibles into China for an un-authorized Christian group called the "Shouters." Mr. Lai was carrying a version of the Bible edited by the founder of the Shouters, a version that is not authorized under Chinese law. The Shouters have been banned for several years and are thought to have many thousands of members in southern China. Two mainland Chinese citizens were convicted with Mr. Lai and are still serving three year prison terms.