South Korean cult leader jailed for beating followers

SEOUL (AFP) - The leader of a South Korean doomsday cult has been sentenced to six years in jail for holding some 400 followers captive in Fiji and subjecting them to violence and barbaric rituals, a court statement said.

Shin Ok-ju, founder of the Grace Road Church, convinced her followers to move to Fiji in 2014, where she said they would be safe from impending disasters.

But once they arrived on the island, their passports were taken away from them and many were allegedly beaten or subject to brutal rituals purportedly aimed at driving out evil spirits.

On Monday, a South Korean court found Shin guilty of multiple criminal charges including violence, child abuse and fraud.

"The victims suffered helplessly from collective beatings and experienced not only physical torture but also severe fear and considerable mental shock," said the Anyang sub-court of the Suwon District Court.

"Heavy punishment is inevitable against illegal acts carried out in the name of religion," it added in a statement earlier this week.

Some followers who escaped told journalists that those who attempted to leave the church were punished with severe public beatings known as "ground threshings".

Christian-inspired cults have mushroomed in South Korea, where more than a quarter of the population are Protestants or Catholics.

A cult leader who claimed to be the messiah was sentenced to 16 years in prison at an appeal court in May for raping multiple female followers.