BEIJING, Dec 2 (AFP) - Police in northern China have sentenced five Christian church leaders to two years of "education through labour" after they protested against a police raid on their church, a rights group said Wednesday.
The punishments came after a Shanxi province court last week sentenced five other leaders of the same church to up to seven years in prison for trying to protect the unregistered church from demolition, said ChinaAid, a US-based Christian rights group.
"To arbitrarily send five innocent citizens to labour camps is in direct violation of international human rights covenants," the head of ChinaAid, Bob Fu, said in a statement.
The statement said the case, in the city of Linfen, showed Chinese authorities were intent on suppressing religious freedom.
Up to 1,000 followers of the unregistered 60,000-member Fushan church in Linfen held a protest prayer meeting a day after police raided church buildings on September 13, the rights group said.
Following the protest, police began rounding up church leaders, it said.
"Education through labour" is a punishment meted out by police that does not require judicial procedures such as a trial. The punishment has long been criticised as arbitrary and susceptible to abuse.
Repeated calls by AFP to Linfen police and government offices seeking comment on the case went unanswered Thursday.
China officially provides freedom of religion but in practice the ruling Communist Party restricts independent worship by forcing groups to register with the government.
The government says China's official churches have 15 million Protestants and five million Catholics. But there are believed to be many millions more worshipping in "underground" or "family" churches, which refuse to submit to government regulation.