The same Chinese court that sentenced to death five underground church leaders reversed itself on Oct. 9, freeing four of the five South China Church leaders along with throwing out criminal convictions for about a dozen other members.
The provincial court in Hubei Province decided to review the case last month but did not publicize the retrial until a week before it took place. With a national holiday, that gave the defense only one day to prepare its case. Nevertheless, the court declared four of the church leaders innocent and released them immediately. Founding pastor Gong Shengliang-originally sentenced to death and facing execution-received a life sentence in the retrial. Two others, journalist Li Ying and church member Bang Kun Gong, traded life sentences for 15-year prison sentences.
The court originally convicted the church leaders on charges of illegal church activity and spreading a cult. Mr. Gong also stood convicted of rape. The South China Church is one of the fastest growing unregistered church movements in China. The government, which tries to restrict religious activity to state-sponsored institutions, tried to use the cases to behead the church's success.
It may have gone too far even for communist watchdogs. Female church members reported that they suffered beatings at the hands of authorities, according to Voice of the Martyrs, to pressure them to testify to rape charges against Mr. Gong. In setting a retrial, the court acknowledged its evidence was erroneous and procedures followed in bringing the case to initial trial were illegal.
The retrial also coincides with an upcoming visit to the United States by Chinese President Jiang Zemin. He is scheduled to arrive on Oct. 22, but diplomatic wrangling over what kind of reception he will enjoy continues between Beijing and Washington. The Bush administration has been reluctant to reward him with a red-carpet state tour-as he received under Mr. Clinton five years ago-keeping his official itinerary to Seattle, Chicago, Houston, and the Bush ranch in Texas. Perhaps Mr. Jiang is trying to win a ticket to the White House ballroom.
"It's all political," said Voice of the Martyrs spokesman Gary Lane. "With Jiang coming to the States, this is a gift to President Bush."