(photo credit: AP [file])
A Chinese court has sentenced to death the leader and two members of an underground Christian sect for murdering 20 members of a rival group, while 13 associates got prison terms, a lawyer for the sect said Friday.
Xu Wenku, the head of the Three Grades of Servants group, is being held responsible for acts committed by followers of his sect, said his lawyer, Li Heping. He argued at the trial that prosecutors had failed to directly link Xu to the deaths.
"The Communist Party has 70 million members. If a local party secretary is bad and commits a murder, you don't sentence (President) Hu Jintao to death," said Li.
The case against Xu and other members of the Three Grades of Servants sect has delved into problems underground evangelical groups experience as they attract swarms of new adherents while facing repression from China's communist government.
Three Grades of Servants had been competing with the other sect, Eastern Lightning, for converts.
At the trial, Xu and co-defendant Li Maoxing claimed that police tortured them to extract confessions that they said were false. For one weeklong period, police deprived Xu of sleep and at one point suspended him from the ceiling for five hours, Li had said in his closing arguments at trial.
Xu was a seminal figure in the underground Christian movement and his case was carefully watched by overseas Christian groups.
Xu began preaching in the early 1970s in central Henan province, one of a coterie of barely educated, rural preachers who helped revive Christianity from a Maoist era ban on all religion.
The Intermediate People's Court in the northeastern city of Shuangyashan, which convicted Xu and the others in March, issued the death sentences on Wednesday, a lengthy delay even by Chinese standards.
In addition to Xu and two others sentenced to death, three others received suspended death sentences, a punishment usually commuted to life in prison, while 10 others were given prison terms from three to 15 years, Li said.
Li said he and lawyers representing the other two defendants who received death sentences planned to file appeals this week.