BEIJING — Four members of the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual group who allegedly incited other adherents to immolate themselves were sentenced to lengthy prison terms Friday, Chinese state media reported.
The four were convicted by a Beijing court of "organizing, masterminding, instigating and assisting" five Falun Gong practitioners who set themselves afire in Tiananmen Square in January to protest the Communist regime's ban on their faith.
Liu Yunfang, 57, received a life sentence for printing pamphlets that allegedly encouraged suicide by followers seeking to achieve "consummation," the official New China News Agency said.
The other three defendants received sentences ranging from seven to 15 years for their roles in the Jan. 23 incident, in which a woman and her 12-year-old daughter were severely burned and later died. Three other people who doused themselves with gasoline and set themselves afire were hospitalized.
Falun Gong representatives overseas say the five victims were not true practitioners because the group's teachings forbid suicide. The meditation movement adheres to an eclectic blend of Buddhist and Taoist beliefs as well as a complex cosmology concerning the triumph of good over evil.
The incident in Tiananmen Square appeared to intensify the government's crackdown on the group. An extensive propaganda campaign turned much of public opinion against Falun Gong, citing the self-immolations as evidence that the group poses a threat to human life. The People's Daily called the group's adherents "enemies of the people."
Thousands of Falun Gong followers have been rounded up and sent to labor camps since the Beijing regime outlawed the group as an "evil cult" in July 1999. More than 200 believers have died in custody, according to Falun Gong spokesmen and some human rights advocates, but that figure is difficult to verify.
Last month, a government official in northeastern China acknowledged that 14 practitioners, all women, had died in a labor camp there in what authorities labeled a mass suicide but Falun Gong followers said was the result of officially sanctioned torture. Adherents who have escaped or been released from the camps have given accounts of physical abuse and extreme psychological intimidation aimed at getting them to recant their beliefs.
The four people sentenced Friday included two devotees, Liu and Wang Jindong, 50, who had traveled from nearby Henan province to Beijing to "prepare for the self-destruction" attempts in Tiananmen Square, the New China News Agency said.
Of the four, only Wang attempted self-immolation, authorities said. Wang, who was shown in court on television Friday with scars on his face from the burns, was sentenced to 15 years.
The court handed down a 10-year sentence to Xue Hongjun, 49, who allegedly sent the five would-be martyrs to the train station for their journey to Beijing and told them: "See you in heaven." Liu Xiuqin, 34, is to spend seven years in prison for allegedly having allowed the five to use her apartment as a place to bottle the gasoline they would later use, the news agency said.
A fifth defendant was released because she cooperated with prosecutors and confessed to acting "under Falun Gong's incitement, bullying and mind control," the news agency said.
Since the Jan. 23 incident, protests in Tiananmen Square by Falun Gong practitioners, which had been a daily occurrence, have tapered off.
Many adherents continue to practice their faith in private. In occasional pronouncements posted on the group's Web site, movement founder Li Hongzhi--who lives in New York but seldom appears in public--has encouraged his followers to hold firm and resist evil, even under extreme duress.