Tuesday, November 8, 2005; 1:47 AM
BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese court on Tuesday sentenced a Protestant minister, his wife and her brother to prison terms of up to three years for illegally printing Bibles and other Christian publications, one of their lawyers said.
The conviction of house church minister Cai Zhuohua, 34, and his family by the Beijing People's Intermediate Court came days before U.S. President George W. Bush arrives for a state visit.
In atheist China, printing of Bibles and other religious publications need special approval from the State Bureau of Religious Affairs. Bibles cannot be openly bought at bookshops in a country long criticized overseas for intolerance of religion.
Cai, arrested in September last year, was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of "illegal business practices," attorney Zhang Xingshui said by telephone.
His 33-year-old wife, Xiao Yunfei, was given a two-year prison sentence and her brother, Xiao Gaowen, 37, an 18-month term, the lawyer said. Both were convicted on similar charges.
They were expected to appeal and have 10 days to do so.
Their families and the court could not immediately be reached for comment.
A fourth defendant, Hu Jinyun, Xiao Gaowen's wife, was exempted from criminal punishment on charges of "secretly storing illegal goods" because she made contributions by informing against her sister-in-law, the lawyer quoted the verdict as saying.
Rights activists say that while religious freedom is enshrined in China's constitution and the faithful are allowed to worship at official churches, the government is increasingly using legal excuses to crack down on house churches and wayward religious groups.
The prosecutor, in the bill of indictment, accused the defendants of illegally printing 200,000 copies of the Bible which were found in Cai's warehouse but the verdict did not mention a figure.
In July, Hong Kong's Beijing-funded Ta Kung Pao newspaper quoted Ye Xiaowen, director of the State Bureau of Religious Affairs, as saying Cai illegally printed 40 million copies of the Bible and other Christian publications.
Ye accused Cai of illegally selling over two million copies of the Bible instead of giving them away for free, the newspaper said, adding that Ye insisted the case had nothing to do with religious persecution.