Death sentences handed down to five leaders of an underground church have been overturned, with a retrial scheduled for today, a human rights group reported yesterday. The five were sentenced in December by the Jingmen Intermediate People's Court. Also sentenced were 12 members of the banned South China Church who received jail terms ranging from life to two years. The 12 are in the process of appealing against their sentences. Three of the five leaders - Gong Shengliang, Xu Fuming and Hu Yong - were scheduled to be executed in January, but the sentence was delayed due to international pressure. The other two - Li Ying and Gong Bangkun - were sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve. However, their sentences were overturned on September 22 by the Higher People's Court of Hubei province because of 'insufficient evidence', according to the Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy. The South China Church case has received international publicity since late last year. It was singled out in a report released by the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China last week to illustrate how local governments suppress unsanctioned religious groups on the mainland under the pretext of social stability. The Ministry of Public Security describes the South China Church as a cult. Church founder Gong Shengliang, 50, who is respected by Christian leaders overseas, had been convicted of sabotaging the law, rape and assault. His church has grown rapidly since it was founded 11 years ago and reportedly has more than 50,000 followers in provinces such as Hubei and Henan. However, it is not certain that the leaders will be cleared after the trial starting today because the five face exactly the same charges as before - a sign that prosecutors in Jingmen remain convinced that they deserve the death sentence. Court officials were unavailable for comment yesterday. But the head of the Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, Frank Lu Siqing, said the Christian leaders were spared mainly because of President Jiang Zemin's US trip this month. 'It is entirely possible that they would have been executed if not for Mr Jiang's visit,' Mr Lu said. One source said the court's decision was prompted by the State Council. 'Senior officials of the State Council were alerted about this particular case about a month ago when they made preparations regarding religions for the visit by Jiang Zemin to the United States,' the source said. Although human rights would not top the agenda, observers said they expected US officials to raise rights violations with Mr Jiang's delegation during his visit. The overturning of the death sentences reflected how religious cases were handled in China, a source said. Although Christians were involved, the case was under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Public Security, not the State Council's Religious Affairs Bureau. 'Top leaders were simply not aware of the international attention on this case because the Ministry of Public Security has not reported it as a religious case,' the source said.