Four principal organisers of the banned Falun Gong were jailed for up to 18 years by a Beijing court yesterday. Li Chang was given the highest sentence, Wang Zhiwen received 16 years, Ji Liewu 12 years, and Yao Jie seven years. Xinhua said the four were convicted of using the sect to cause deaths and undermine the implementation of the law, and of illegally obtaining state secrets. Their trial was the most significant prosecution since the Government outlawed Falun Gong five months ago and described it as an 'evil cult'. All four defendants, three men and a woman, were Communist Party members with positions of influence in government and business. Li, 59, was a leading official in the computer bureau of the National Police Ministry, and Wang, 50, an engineer with a materials company under the Railways Ministry. Ji, 36, was manager of the Hong Kong subsidiary of a state non-ferrous metals company, while Yao, 40, headed the Communist Party committee of a large Beijing real estate company. The four were said to have helped founder Li Hongzhi, who is in exile in the United States, set up the organisation. They also organised demonstrations, including the April protest which first brought the group to attention, when 10,000 Falun Gong members gathered outside party headquarters in Beijing for a silent protest. Xinhua said the cult had led to the deaths of more than 1,400 members who had refused to take medicine because of the sect's orders, had committed suicide or who had inflicted injuries on themselves. In laying out its case through state media, the Government exposed its deep-seated fears about Falun Gong's ability to mobilise large numbers of followers. Li, Wang, Ji and Yao 'set up 39 command posts, more than 1,900 training posts and more than 280,000 contact posts,' Xinhua said. They 'plotted and directed' 78 protests, among them the April demonstration at Zhongnanhai. The four also stole 37 top secret and otherwise classified state secrets and then disseminated them or included them in protest letters, Xinhua said. Because of the state secrets charges, part of yesterday's hearing was held behind closed doors, it said. Beijing No 1 Intermediate People's Court judge Ma Zirong told Xinhua the trial was 'based on fact and handled according to law' and that 'the court decided to be lenient' towards Li and Yao, who made confessions. Xinhua said Li had exposed the 'criminal activities' of the Falun Gong and its founder and had admitted protests outside government departments and institutions were illegal. 'Defendant Yao Jie also gave a confession of her participation and expressed repentance,' it added. There was tight security in the streets around the court. Some family members of the defendants were detained on Saturday night as a warning, said one Falun Gong member watching the courthouse from outside the police cordon. At least two women questioned by police were led away near the courthouse. In Tiananmen Square, police put about two dozen people into vans and drove them away. According to the Hong Kong-based Information Centre of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China, the trial lasted about nine hours. In addition to four relatives, 36 government cadres attended as well as reporters from the official media. The relatives were allowed to meet the defendants for about 15 minutes after the trial, it said. 'I'm extremely angry,' said Wang Xiaodan, Wang's 20-year-old daughter who lives in the United States. The Government's 'inflexibility, its inability to recognise its mistakes, makes people furious.' Yao's husband, Feng Jinping, is also a Falun Gong member and is awaiting trial after he was arrested in July. They have a 15-year-old son. The rights group said the four defendants would appeal through lawyers today. The White House expressed disappointment at the sentences. 'We are disappointed and we still would call upon China to respect international standards and the international covenant on civil and political rights that they signed some time ago,' an official said. A Hong Kong Falun Gong spokesman, Kan Hung-cheung, said practitioners in the SAR, while feeling the pressure, would not overreact to the sentencing. 'We are only doing exercises for the sake of our health, and we do the state no harm. There is nothing that we should be afraid of,' Mr Kan said. 'But of course I cannot say we feel no pressure at all.' The first trial of Falun Gong followers was held in mid-November in the southern city of Haikou when four local leaders were jailed for between two and 12 years. Falun Gong mixes slow-motion meditation exercises with ideas drawn from Buddhism, Taoism and group founder Li Hongzhi.