Two Chinese Christians have been handed prison sentences for "utilising a cult to obstruct justice" after a trial that lawyers say was riddled with failures.
Zhao Weiliang will serve four years in prison and Cheng Hongpeng will serve three, according to Texas-based organisation China Aid. The men are members of a house church in Shandong province, on the east coast of China. They were first arrested on June 25 last year, when police officers raided a choir practice.
In total, 22 people were detained, though only Zhao and Cheng were placed under formal arrest. They are accused by authorities of being members of the illegal Born Again Movement; a Christian house church network founded in 1968.
The trial took place in April, but the verdict not announced until May 28. The men's lawyer, Chen Jiangang, told China Aid that witnesses were coerced into giving false testimonies, and beaten or threatened with prison sentences if they refused.
He also said that Zhao was beaten; kicked and slapped by officers after the trial was adjourned on its first day.
In its latest annual report, China Aid warned against "draconian measures" taken by President Xi Jinping to eliminate all religious, political and social dissent. "In 2014, Christians and practitioners of other faiths in China experience the harshest persecution seen in over a decade," the report said.
"The increase in government-sanctioned persecution against religious practitioners and human rights lawyers and advocates reflects the overall political transformation that is occurring within the Communist Party in China...namely an orchestrated effort to consolidate power and suppress dissent and any perceived threats to the Chinese government, including the growth of religion".
The latest report from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) also found an "alarming increase in systematic, egregious, and ongoing abuses" in 2014.
It said that people of faith in China "continue to face arrests, fines, denials of justice, lengthy prison sentences, and in some cases, the closing or bulldozing of places of worship."