Amnesty International yesterday appealed for the lives of members of a banned Protestant church who have been sentenced to death. 'The five men sentenced to death may have been tortured to force them to confess,' the London-based human rights watchdog said. They were sentenced on charges of rape or assault or both in December. Amnesty's statement listed the five as Gong Shengliang, 46, Li Ying, 37, Xu Fuming, 26, Hu Yong, 25, and Gong Bangkun, 25. The death sentences for Gong Bangkun and Li Ying were suspended for two years, meaning they were likely to be commuted to life sentences if they behaved well in prison. But according to information provided by the New York-based Committee for Investigation on Persecution of Religion in China, another woman, Sun Minghua, 37, was sentenced to life imprisonment at the same time as the other five. The committee also said Li was the niece of church founder Gong Shengliang. The six were labelled by authorities as the backbone of the South China Church - a banned 'heretical organisation'. Amnesty's statement included letters from three women who claimed they were tortured during interrogation to 'make them confess to having had sexual relations with Gong Shengliang'. In sentencing Gong Shengliang, the Intermediate People's Court in Jingmen, Hubei, said he had sabotaged the laws of the country and was guilty of rape and assault. One of the women, Zhang Hongjuan, described her interrogation in a letter reportedly smuggled out of prison. 'The policemen sneered, 'So you mentioned human rights. I will treat you as subhuman and give you no human rights. Are you still a human being?' ' the letter said. 'With these words they came up to her [a Christian named Li Li] and tore at her blouse . . . they abused her with these words: 'How many times have you slept with your teacher [Gong Shengliang]?' ' she wrote. According to the New York-based committee, 63 members of the South China Church were arrested recently. Some had been convicted and sentenced to jail terms ranging from one to five years. A Christian source said the crackdown against unregistered religious groups had intensified significantly in the past two years. The source said although groups like the South China Church - which spun from the Total Scope Church, another banned underground Protestant church, in 1990 - were often described as charismatic or fanatical, it was arguable that they were cults. A police document issued last year condemned the South China Church, claiming Gong preached to end the Communist Party's rule. The document said the group had extorted more than 320,000 yuan (HK$300,800) from members and that Gong had raped at least 10 woman followers.