China Jails Four Falun Gong Leaders

By Justin Torres | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

( - In the latest episode in a recent effort to "smash" the group, a Chinese court has sentenced four leaders of the Falun Gong spiritual movement to jail terms ranging from 7 to 18 years.

The three men and one woman - Li Chang, Wang Zhiwen, Ji Liewu and Yao Jie - accused of obstructing justice by organizing an illegal cult, espionage and murder. The prison terms are some of the longest given to political dissidents in China in years.

Falun Gong members practice a popular meditation exercise whose roots lie in Bhuddist and Taoist spiritual traditions. Its proclaimed goal is improving its followers' physical and moral health, and above all, advocates leading ethical lives. Since its registration in China in 1992, the movement has recorded phenomenal growth among all classes in the country, including among Communist Party members.

In August, Chinese Communist officials began a crackdown on the group, labeling it a cult and arresting 100 key leaders nationwide. The government also confiscated or destroyed Falun Gong literature that was legally published before the crackdown.

Authorities have called the movement the greatest threat to state security since the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrators of 1989. The Communists have said Falun Gong was "evil" and accused its leader, the New York-based Li Hongzhi, of spreading subversive ideas to deceive the public.

In recent months, tens of thousands of Chinese citizens have been detained and questioned on suspicion of being Falun Gong members, and Falun Gong demonstrations have been halted by police in Beijing.