Online cult activity faces tougher punishments

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China has stepped up efforts to punish those who promote cults online and via social media, in accordance with China's latest judicial interpretation on cult-related crime.

The internet and social media outlets have become prominent platforms for cult members to preach their ideologies in recent years. To ensure such new criminal activities can be clearly targeted by law, the Supreme People's Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate jointly released the judicial interpretation on Wednesday.

According to Chinese law, a cult is an illegal organization that tries to control people by deifying the sect leader; deludes members under the guise of religion or in other names; and engages in activities that harm society.

According to the judicial interpretation, which will take effect on Feb 1, those who use online chat rooms and social media platforms such as WeChat for cult-related activities may face imprisonment, as can those who print cult messages on bank notes.

Cult members who have foreign connections, recruit people in other areas, carry out cult activities at key festivals, preach to minors or work as civil servants will be severely punished, the judicial interpretation stated.

Meanwhile, people who repent joining cults will be handled leniently. Those who were tricked or forced into joining a cult will be exempt from punishment.

In May, three Falun Gong cult followers were imprisoned by a court in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region for downloading Falun Gong materials from illegal websites and sending cult material to primary school students. They were sentenced to terms from one year to two and a half years.

China banned the cult in 1999, accusing the group of using religion to brainwash practitioners, extracting money from them, and even encouraging practitioners to set themselves alight.

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