New York Times International
The New York Times

January 29, 2002

China Sentences Man on Reduced Charge for Importing Bibles


BEIJING, Jan. 28 A Hong Kong citizen accused of bringing tens of thousands of annotated Bibles into China for use by a banned evangelical Christian group was given a two- year prison sentence today by a court in Fujian Province. It was a far lighter sentence than his supporters had feared.

The man, Li Guangqiang, was initially indicted on very serious charges of "using a cult to subvert the law," which can carry a death sentence. The charge was later reduced to conducting "illegal business," after human rights groups and the United States government repeatedly raised concerns about the initial indictment.

President Bush is scheduled to visit Beijing on Feb. 21 and 22, and the Chinese are taking great pains to create a "positive atmosphere" for the visit, political experts here say. Last week, in a speech in Hong Kong, the American ambassador, Clark T. Randt, lobbied for leniency toward Mr. Li, saying the Chinese should "abide by the international norms of behavior."

The case began in May, when Mr. Li was detained after bringing more than 30,000 copies of an annotated Bible into China for used by the banned Christian Shouters sect, diplomats here said. While the Bible is available and legal reading in China, evangelical preaching is not. The Shouters group, given its name because of its adherents' emotional prayer meetings, was banned in 1995. The government apparently regarded the annotations in the Bible that Mr. Li was transporting, The New Testament Recovery Version, as a problem.

Initially, the Chinese government staunchly defended its decision to prosecute Mr. Li under its anti-cult laws, which were instituted two years ago as part of the government's crackdown on the banned spiritual group Falun Gong. Two weeks ago, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Sun Yuxi, said: "It is not a case of smuggling Bibles. The Bibles were a pretext for smuggling a large amount of cult publications."

But the court in Fujian Province recently changed his indictment to "illegal business operations," presumably because Mr. Li did not have an import license. Two men from the mainland who cooperated with him were also sentenced today. The Chinese citizens were given three years. Each was fined the equivalent of $18,000 a huge sum here, but far less of a punishment than the death sentence that some rights advocates feared.

In south-central Anhui Province today, two members of the Shouters group were indicted on the same serious charges that were dropped from Mr. Li's case. Wang Xuexiao and Liu Xishu were charged with "using a cult to undermine the law" for recruiting students into the cult, according to the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, a Hong Kong-based group.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company