Skip to content Skip to navigation

Jailed Chinese Pastor Is Suffering After Beatings, His Relatives Say

June 12, 2003

Erik Eckholm

BEIJING, June 11 — The jailed leader of an evangelical Christian sect has severe health problems as a result of beatings and mistreatment in prison, according to his relatives and supporters.

Pastor Gong Shengliang, head of the outlawed South China Church, is suffering from internal bleeding, hearing loss and other problems, an informant inside the Jinzhou Prison in Hubei Province told his relatives at the end of May.

Mr. Gong is serving a life sentence on charges, fervently denied by him and his supporters, that he fostered an illegal cult, promoted the beating of errant followers and raped some church members. He was arrested in 2001 and sentenced to death. After a global outcry, his punishment was reduced to life in prison.

Four other leaders of the church, which was most active in Hubei Province and claimed some 50,000 followers, received the same stringent penalties. But some of the witnesses who helped convict Mr. Gong and others later recanted, saying they had been tortured into testifying against the pastor, according to Human Rights in China, a group based in New York, and they were subsequently sent to labor camps.

Mr. Gong's relatives last visited him on April 14, his sister said in a telephone interview. Since then, visits have not been allowed, ostensibly to minimize the risk of spreading severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

But at the end of May, someone from the prison who refused to reveal his identity — the sister says she does not know whether it was a prisoner or a guard — called relatives to say that Mr. Gong had resisted daily brainwashing sessions and had been beaten, and that he was seriously ill, unable to rise from his bed.

"We are not allowed to see for ourselves, but the news we have is not good," the sister said today.

Officials of the Jinzhou Prison and the Hubei Provincial Prison Management Bureau, reached by telephone today, would not speak about Mr. Gong in particular but hotly denied that any prisoners had been beaten or had untreated health problems.

"This is impossible," said an official of the Hubei Prison Management Bureau, who would give his name only as Mr. Zhu. "There are laws in China to protect the rights of prisoners."

A group of 34 people, including Mr. Gong's relatives and followers in China, have sent an open letter to the authorities, charging that Mr. Gong was beaten for professing his faith and requesting that he be allowed to mount a legal appeal.

The Chinese government requires religion to be practiced within government-approved churches and to limit their efforts to spread the faith. Mr. Gong's South China Church is one of many evangelical Protestant movements that have defied the authorities and have spread widely in parts of China, outside the purview of the official church.