Two founding members of the South China Church have been sentenced to death following a secret trial.
Gong Sheng Liang, 46, and his niece Li Ying, 36, were sentenced after a secret trial held on December 18 2001 at the Jing Men Court in Hubei Province.
Gong was sentenced to death for 'using an evil cult to undermine law enforcement', causing bodily harm with intent, and rape, according to reports from the Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (ICHRD).
Li Ying was also given a death sentence, suspended for two years, for 'using an evil cult to undermine law enforcement' and causing bodily harm with intent.
A further 15 members of the group were also sentenced, including another founding member, Ms Sun Ming Hua, who was sentenced to indefinite imprisonment.
According to reports, Gong's female co-workers were arrested and mutilated by the Public Security Bureau to make it look like they had been raped, then forced to make false confessions.
The rape charge follows a pattern which has been used against other alleged cult leaders who have been sentenced to death, including Supreme Spirit Sect leader Liu Jia Guo and leader of the Established King Sect, Wu Yung Ming, sentenced to death in 1999 and 1995 respectively.
The difference in Gong's case is that the South China Church is more widely regarded as a mainstream Christian group and that details of the allegations have not been given in public.
The South China Church was founded in 1991 when Gong, who was imprisoned between 1983 and 1986, left the Born Again Movement. The church is estimated to have some 50,000 members.
CSW is also concerned for three men arrested in connection with Bible transportation. Lai Kwong Keung, 38, a businessman from Hong Kong, was arrested on May 31 2001. He and two other Chinese men, Yu Zhudi and Lin Xifu, both 42, were allegedly taking 16,280 Bibles to Fuqing city in Fujian Province.
According to the ICHRD the men face charges of 'using an evil cult to undermine law enforcement', the same charge which resulted in Gong's death sentence.
The ICHRD reports that the men were due to stand trial on the weekend of January 12 at Fuqing Intermediate Court, but this has been postponed. According to another source, the case has been referred back to Fuzhou, possibly for review.
Stuart Windsor, National Director of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said: "China's policy of designating groups as cults simply on grounds of organisation and refusal to register is causing untold damage and is a serious violation of human rights and international standards.
"CSW continues to urge China to allow true religious freedom as guaranteed under Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
"China needs to adhere to the international commitments she has undertaken before being given credence as a reliable member of the international community. With entry into the World Trade Organisation and the granting of the 2008 Olympics, the international community is justified in requiring respect for the most basic international standards of respect for human life and fundamental freedoms."