China court jails leader of religious sect branded as cult for life

A court in the southern city of Zhuhai on Friday fined Wu Zeheng, head of the "Huazang Zongmen" sect
A court in the southern city of Zhuhai on Friday fined Wu Zeheng, head of the "Huazang Zongmen" sectPHOTO: MINSHENG360

SHANGHAI (AFP) - A Chinese court has sentenced the leader of a religious sect labelled a cult by authorities to life in prison on several charges, according to an official statement, with three of his followers also jailed.

A court in the southern city of Zhuhai on Friday also fined Wu Zeheng, head of the "Huazang Zongmen" sect, more than 7 million yuan (S$1.6 million), it said. The charges included organising a cult, rape, fraud and selling harmful food products.

Wu seduced dozens of women by telling them sex with him could give them "supernatural power", state media has said. He also operated a restaurant which claimed the food was cooked with "precious" ingredients.

A police investigation showed Wu had amassed an illegal fortune of more than 6.9 million yuan through his activities, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

The court also sentenced three of his followers to jail terms of one to four years, but one of those tried escaped punishment, the statement said.

The group, which operates under multiple names, claims links to Buddhism.

Analysts say China has tightened control over religious worship, among other areas, under the administration of President Xi Jinping, who took office in 2013.

Authorities have targeted cults after members of one group beat a woman whom they were trying to recruit to death in a McDonald's restaurant in May last year.

In February, the authorities executed a father and daughter, who belonged to the Quannengshen group, for the murder.

Another 14 members of the sect, whose name can be translated as Church of Almighty God, were jailed for up to three years in July.

In another case, a celebrity Chinese "qigong master", Wang Lin, who claimed to conjure snakes from thin air and cure the sick, was held by the police on suspicion of kidnapping and murder in July, according to media reports.

In a bizarre twist to the case, his ex-wife and mistress offered 2 million yuan in bribes to a policeman investigating the matter in exchange for information to help Wang seek a lighter sentence, the official Xinhua news agency said on Friday.