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News Briefs

Protestants Get Prison Instead of Death


Five leaders of an underground Protestant sect, spared execution by a Chinese court, received sentences of up to life in prison Thursday after a rare retrial on criminal charges, a human-rights group said.

The unusual death-penalty reprieve for the evangelical leaders comes just two weeks before Chinese President Jiang Zemin is to visit President Bush at his Crawford, Texas, ranch, and analysts say the timing is no coincidence. Bush has criticized China in the past for its tight controls on religion, and China often tries to soften its image just before U.S.-China summits.

“Because religious persecution is such a strong issue with the current administration, right before Jiang Zemin comes to visit the United States, they are particularly trying to avoid provoking the United States in such a sensitive area,” said Xiao Qiang, executive director of New York-based Human Rights in China. “They are carefully trying to avoid criticism from the U.S. However, sentencing these people to life sentences is quite serious.”

Gong Shengliang, founder of the South China Church, and Xu Fuming and Hu Yong, of the banned religious group, were given life sentences Thursday after a two-day retrial in Jingmen Intermediate People’s Court, according to a statement issued by the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy.

Two other members who had been given delayed death sentences were sentenced to 15-year prison terms. All five plan to appeal, the center said.

New Federal Label Standardizes Meaning of ‘Organic’


Shoppers who want to buy organic foods can be bewildered by the labels’ often fuzzy claims, and may even suspect that the edibles they’re paying a premium for aren’t truly pesticide- or hormone-free. After all, terms such as “organically produced,” “pesticide free,” “100 percent natural,” or even “certified organic” aren’t guarantees of purity.

But new government-approved labels, which will debut in two weeks, should eliminate some of that guesswork. Under the guidelines, foods must meet strict U.S. Department of Agriculture production criteria to be identified as “organic,” and only products that contain 95 percent or more organic food can carry the USDA organic logo.

Previously, private certifying agencies and a patchwork of regulations, which varied by state, determined which products could claim to be organic. Some standards were more lax than others. Consequently, consumers had no assurances what labels meant.

“Anyone could slap on the word ‘organic’ and hike up the price,” said Barbara C. Robinson, the USDA official in Washington, D.C., who is overseeing this program. “Now standards are uniform nationwide, and consumers know what they’re getting. It helps the organic food industry too, because now they know exactly what to do.”

After 10 years of intense debate among organic growers and retailers, conventional farmers, consumers, environmentalists and animal rights activists, the USDA has created four organic categories: 100 percent organic, organic, made with organic ingredients and, for those products with less than 70 percent organic ingredients, a simple listing of the organic items in the ingredient panel.

But the USDA’s definition of “organic” goes beyond defining whether or not the food has been sprayed with chemicals. The organic label can’t be used on products made with genetically modified ingredients, synthetic chemical fertilizers or pesticides, or sewage sludge, which is sterilized waste that can contain heavy metals such as lead and mercury. Nor can it be used on products that have been irradiated, a process in which radiation is used to kill germs.

FCC Rejection of Hughes, EchoStar Merger Opens Door for Murdoch


News Corp. may be the biggest beneficiary of a decision Thursday by federal regulators to reject a proposed merger of the United States’ two satellite providers, Hughes Electronics Corp. and EchoStar Communications Corp.

The media giant controlled by Rupert Murdoch negotiated with Hughes’ parent General Motors Corp. for more than a year before it was trumped last October by a surprise 11th-hour bid for Hughes by its smaller satellite rival, EchoStar.

Now, with that deal rejected by the Federal Communications Commission, Murdoch is expected to launch another bid for Hughes, which owns the leading satellite provider, DirecTV. News Corp. may be able to snatch it up at a much cheaper price than a year ago, filling in a U.S. gap in the company’s global satellite business.

September Retail Sales Were Sluggish, Raising Holiday Fears


September’s retail sales reported Thursday were surprisingly sluggish, which observers said could portend a not-so-jolly holiday season.

Before the month began, analyst Michael Niemira of Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi figured overall same-store sales could rise 4.5 percent, particularly since results were being compared against September 2001, when spending came to a halt after the terrorist attacks.

Instead, 79 retail chains combined to post an anemic 1.5 percent gain. Federated Department Stores, parent of Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, had flat sales last month compared with September 2001 but that wasn’t saying much: In September 2001 its sales tumbled 13 percent.

Last month’s weakness “makes it much more likely the holiday performance will look much softer,” Niemira said.

Analyst Walter Loeb cited several factors, including talk of war, stock market jitters, job insecurity, a lack of exciting fashions and unseasonably warm weather. “Everyone’s been hit with a lack of traffic,” he said.