China has sentenced the head of what it calls a cult to life in prison on charges including rape and fraud, state news agency Xinhua said on Saturday, continuing a crackdown on what it views as dangerous illegal movements.
After a probe lasting more than a year, a court in the southern province of Guangdong on Friday sentenced Wu Zeheng, founder and leader of the Buddhist-inspired Huazang Dharma group, and fined him 7.15 million yuan ($1.13 million), Xinhua cited the court as saying.
Three others were also sentenced to up to four years in prison for fraud and perverting the course of justice. Wu intends to appeal, according to Xinhua.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan U.S. government commission, says Wu and his followers are being persecuted for their religious beliefs.
Reuters was not immediately able to locate a lawyer for Wu.
The Huazang Dharma has said on its website, which is blocked in China, that he is a purely religious figure facing cooked-up accusations, and has appealed for international help.
Xinhua previously reported that Wu had already been jailed at least twice, and set up his group in 2010 upon his last release from jail.
"In the name of charity and life science and through inflammatory preaching, Wu lured a growing number of followers who were interested in Buddhism, were suffering diseases or thought association with the cult would ward-off ill fortune, according to the police," the state news agency said on Saturday.
"Wu slept with many women by saying he could give them 'supernatural power'. He was also found to have amassed more than 6.7 million yuan in ill-gotten gains, according to the court," said Xinhua.
China's officially atheist Communist Party does not tolerate challenges to its rule. It prizes social stability and religious activities must be state sanctioned.
Authorities have gone after what they view as cults, which have multiplied in recent years, and demonstrations have been put down with force and some sect leaders executed.