A Chinese court sentenced four top organizers of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, all members of the ruling Communist Party, to prison terms of up to 18 years today following a nine-hour trial.

Li Chang, a former official at the Ministry of Public Security who has been vilified in China's state-run media as Falun Gong's ringleader in China, received the longest sentence, and former Railways Ministry official Wang Zhiwen was given a 16-year term. Two other defendants were sentenced to 12 and seven years.

Those sentences, announced at a Beijing court after a trial that the defendants' relatives called unfair, were the stiffest meted out to members of the group since it was outlawed last July. They were among the longest sentences given any political or religious dissidents since the 1989 crackdown on democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

The severity of the sentences reflects the ruling Communist Party's alarm at the tenacity and effectiveness of Falun Gong. The emergence of such a large, highly organized and disciplined group shocked China's leaders, who view the success of their own revolution in 1949 as a lesson about the potential power of mass movements.

The government released a statement today saying that Li, Wang and the two others had been found guilty of using a cult to "obstruct justice, causing human deaths in the process of organizing a cult and illegally obtaining state secrets." The state secrets count could have resulted in the death penalty, and the government statement pointedly labeled Li's 18-year sentence as "lenient."

President Jiang Zemin appears to be baffled by the depth of commitment to Falun Gong and the lack of international support for China's crackdown on the group. Jiang said the group has been responsible for the deaths of 1,400 followers, most of whom he said rejected needed medical treatment or committed suicide.

The defendants' relatives said their loved ones should not be blamed for those deaths. "It's absolutely unjust," said Li Zhechen, Li Chang's son, in an interview in Beijing. "People are free to believe what they want. It's not like they held a knife to people. . . . It's not a cult. It's a belief."

He said the court simply rejected any evidence offered by the defendants or their lawyers that the judges did not agree with. "He has worked arduously on behalf of the Communist Party for so many years," Li Zhechen said of his father. "He can't take all the responsibility for Li Hongzhi," the New York-based founder of Falun Gong, who is China's most wanted man.

A spokesman for Li Hongzhi in New York called today's proceedings a "show trial." State-run television showed the four defendants looking calm and showing little remorse.

According to Frank Lu Siqing, spokesman for the Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China, it was no accident that the people sentenced today are all Communist Party members. Many top Chinese officials--including members of the Communist Party's ruling Politburo, active and retired military officers and police officials--practiced Falun Gong, and the high-profile trial may be intended to serve as a warning of the consequences of their continued refusal to break with the movement. Many continued to practice Falun Gong's prescribed spiritual and physical exercises in their homes after public displays were banned.

Falun Gong's leaders insist that they have no political ambitions. Adherents--said to number in the millions--believe that cultivating an "orb of energy" in one's belly through the exercises promotes physical and spiritual health and supernatural powers--a belief that has attracted large numbers of people disillusioned with Chinese society.

Members have an intense reverence for "master" Li Hongzhi, a fact that has added to the concerns of China's rulers, who are unwilling to tolerate even a perceived challenge to their monopoly on political power. Chinese observers said the government has overreacted against the peaceful Falun Gong movement, and "turned something small into something big." While Li Chang, 59, is not related to Li Hongzhi, he was seen as the founder's main contact in Beijing, sources said. In addition to Wang, 50, Li's two other codefendants were Ji Liewu, a manager in a metals firm, and Yao Jie, a female real estate broker, who were sentenced to 12 years and seven years respectively.

According to the official New China News Agency, the four were convicted of organizing protests outside government offices around the country, including 78 demonstrations with more than 300 participants and a silent protest by 10,000 people who surrounded the Chinese leadership's Beijing compound last April. That event led to the government decision to crush the movement.

In addition, the four were found guilty of illegally profiting from the publication of Falun Gong books and posters, which were said to have earned $5.4 million. The government also said it discovered "37 separate items of secret state information" in their homes and that the leaking of the unspecified information caused "serious consequences," the news agency said.

The fact that Li Chang had previously worked within China's security establishment made him an even more significant target. China's security agencies were embarrassed that they had no advance knowledge of the April gathering, as well as by continued sit-ins over the past several months at Tiananmen Square. During today's trial, two dozen people believed to be Falun Gong followers were removed from the square.

The government has acknowledged detaining at least 35,000 members since the ban was initiated five months ago.