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ANS (03/10/06) – International concern is mounting over the fate of a Chinese religious leader, Xu Shuangfu, who is awaiting a verdict amidst growing fears that a death sentence will be passed.

Xu, also known as Xu Wenku, is the leader of a religious group called the Three Grades of Servants. He and at least fifteen others from the group were tried from 28 February to 3 March in Shuangyashan Intermediate Court, Heilongjiang Province in the northeast of China . It is thought that the verdict may be imminent.

China Aid Association (CAA), an organization documenting religious persecution in China , reported that government sources have said that Xu and at least three co-defendants will be sentenced to death.

The defendants are accused of murdering leaders of the Eastern Lightning group and defrauding members of their own group of millions of yuan.

According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), the case is of particular concern as evidence emerged at the trial that severe torture and sexual abuse had been used against the defendants to extract confessions.

A report from CSW obtained by ANS says: “Xu described how he was hung in the air for five hours and how interrogators tied his fingers, toes and genitals with wire and then connected the wire to an electrical supply.”

According to CAA, Xu’s daughter, Ms Xu Baiyin, who was in court, reported that Xu immediately revoked his confession as soon as the court finished reading the interrogation records provided by the prosecutors.

CSW says Mr Li Maoxing, the second defendant, showed the court injuries to his fingers and said that the torture experts used a new torture method known as “Pi Long Pao” which involved suspending him with a very thick blanket and then giving him electric shocks while he was soaking wet.

The chief judge disrupted the proceedings 20 times as the defense made the case for Xu’s innocence. Xu denied all accusations in the court.

Ms Xu Baiyin commented that her father was “calm and peaceful” and stated: “My father told the court he was very sad after hearing the murdering activities today and he said murdering is evil and forbidden by God.”

The Three Grades of Servants has at least half a million members in China . While many of the mainstream Chinese house churches identify Xu’s group as controversial and doctrinally cultic, the Eastern Lightning group, by contrast, is seen as nothing more than a violent coercive criminal group.

CSW says Xu disappeared in April 2004 in Harbin in Heilongjiang Province in a crackdown that is reported to have seen the arrest of more than 50 members of his group. Reports indicate that he was kidnapped and that his arrest was only made official at a later point, prompting questions as to why it was necessary to kidnap him if evidence for criminal charges was already available.

CAA reports that a number of local leaders from Xu’s group have already been sentenced to death, though the decisions have not been approved by the People’s Supreme Court and uncertainty remains as to whether the death sentences have been carried out. One member of the group, Gu Xianggao, was beaten to death in custody the day after being detained on 26th April. His parents were given the considerable sum of compensation of 230,000 RMB (US$ 28,000 / £ 16,400 / € 23,800) and ordered not to speak about the situation (see www.csw.org.uk/Countries/China/Resources/ALetterFromGuXiangyan.pdf).

Due to the imminence of the verdict and the fears of unjust use of the death penalty based on confessions obtained through torture, CSW and other agencies are urging that strong representations be made to the Chinese authorities as a matter of urgency.

Tina Lambert, CSW’s Advocacy Director, stated: “‘It is obviously deeply concerning that such brutal torture has been used to extract confessions which were then produced in court against these religious leaders. Clearly any verdict based on such evidence is in flagrant breach of the core principles of international law. We encourage the public to join us as we urge the Chinese authorities to immediately ensure that these breaches of fair trial do not result in a serious miscarriage of justice.”

CSW is a human rights organization which specializes in religious freedom, works on behalf of those persecuted for their Christian beliefs and promotes religious liberty for all.