The leader of a Buddhist sect in China has been sentenced to life in prison for fraud, rape and “harmful food preparation,” state media reported on Sunday.
Huazang Dharma leader Wu Zeheng was also fined 7.15 million yuan ($1.13 million) for amassing more than 6.7 million yuan in ill-gotten gains, a south China court ruled Friday, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Three of Wu’s followers received sentences of up to four years for fraud and perverting the course of justice at the intermediate people’s court in Zhuhai, Guangdong province.
Wu denies all charges and will appeal, Xinhua said.
Supporters say Wu is being persecuted and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom has called for his release.
In an April Facebook posting by the Huazang Center attributed to Wu’s lawyer Lin Qilei, he criticized improper prosecutorial procedure and police harassment following a high-profile raid on the group’s premises last year.
Police arrested Wu at his apartment in Zhuhai where they found luxury watches, jewellery, cigarettes, liquor and a young woman in pyjamas, Xinhua said.
In a July report, state broadcaster China Central Television interviewed alleged victims who claimed Wu forced them to have sex with him.
One follower reportedly told police she had been repeatedly raped and became pregnant three times, but was forced to have abortions.
Wu told dozens of women including minors that sex with him granted them “supernatural power,” Xinhua said.
Wu also ran a restaurant in Shenzhen, where the food was promoted as containing precious secret ingredients that were in fact toxic contaminants and drugs, the report said.
Born in Guangdong province in 1967, Wu founded the group in early 1990s claiming to be the successor of eminent monks, Xinhua said. Previous state media reports this year indicated Wu’s age as 47.
Wu attracted more than 1,000 adherents by claiming he was the reincarnation of Buddha and creating a doctrine called Cultivation of Huazang, People’s Daily reported in July.
Wu’s preaching, described as inflammatory, promised his followers the ability to ward off sickness and ill fortune through charity and life science, Xinhua said.