China sentenced four provincial leaders of the Falun Gong spiritual movement today to prison terms of up to 12 years in the first of a series of show trials to mete out punishments to the banned group's most active members.

Chinese state television showed the four defendants sitting before a panel of judges on its prime-time broadcast, which reaches hundreds of millions of households. Grim-faced policemen stood rigidly behind the three men and one woman as the TV announcer warned that anyone "who violates the interests of the masses will certainly face the legal consequences."

The trial came just two days before U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's scheduled arrival in Beijing. Annan told reporters in Tokyo that he is puzzled by the Chinese crackdown. He said he plans to raise the matter with Chinese leaders, and appealed to the government to adhere to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and China's own constitution, both of which protect freedom of religion and association.

But Chinese authorities have largely disregarded international criticism because they believe the domestic stakes are too high not to, observers said.

"While the crackdown is seen as heavy-handed, it reinforces the Chinese government's credible threat to non-government organizations that it would brook no challenge to its authority," said Dali L. Yang, a Chinese political scientist at the University of Chicago.

In a brief trial at the Intermediate People's Court today, Song Yuesheng was convicted of "using a cult to violate the law," instigating protests and escaping police custody. Song, whom the state media have called an unreformed "schemer," was accused of organizing a 183-strong gathering in a park on Aug. 8 to resist government efforts to squelch the exercise and meditation group.

The official ban on the group issued on July 22 also outlawed any expression of opposition to the ban. Song's stiff dozen-year sentence appeared to be a warning to other organizers of the high price of continued dissent. The other three defendants from Hainan--Liao Yulin, Chen Yuan and Jiang Shilou--were sentenced to terms of two to seven years. Authorities accused the defendants of traveling to at least 10 cities to organize opposition to the ban. All four pleaded guilty but appealed for leniency.

The Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China said at least 300 others are expected to stand trial soon. More than 1,000 followers have already been imprisoned in China's "reform through labor" system, where trials are not required and sentences can stretch for years, the group said.