Taipei, Taiwan -- The trial of self-proclaimed mystic Sung Chi-li, who counts Kaohsiung Mayor Frank Hsieh among his followers, took a surprising U-turn yesterday when the high court overturned his previous conviction on fraud charges.
The Taiwan High Court cited a constitutional protection for religion and the inability to prove that Sung does not possess supernatural powers as reasons for its decision.
Sung was given seven years by a district court that convicted him of defrauding believers out of hundreds of millions of New Taiwan dollars.
Also acquitted were his chief disciple, Cheng Chen-tung, Mayor Hsieh's wife, You Fang-chih, and 13 other defendants.
"The judicial reform is making progress, vindicating me," Sung told reporters on his way out of the courthouse.
About 100 Sung followers at the trial broke into cheers when the court's ruling was announced.
"Sung Chi-li does have supernatural powers," one female believer said, wiping away tears of relief.
Sung claims that his mystic powers enable him to "freeze" others and produce "doubles" of himself that appear miles away from where his bona fide self is.
But in 1996, Sung was accused of conning followers by selling them expensive fake photos of the master in supernatural acts.
Taking the lead in the campaign against Sung were Chu Mei-fong, then a member of the Taipei City Council who has now been disgraced due to a sex video scandal, and a top Sung aide, Chang Nai-jen.
The alleged scam aroused public attention after it was discovered that Hsieh, who was then a lawmaker, and his wife were members of the cult.
Prosecutors said Sung had admitted to lying about his mystic powers, and the district court in Taipei determined that the master was conning his followers.
The district court convicted both Sung and Cheng but acquitted 15 other defendants, including You, who had edited a photo album of Sung pictures.
You and many others followers told the high court that they still believe in Sung, and saw with their own eyes the master's "doubles." You said her husband remains a believer.
The high court said the accusers' testimonies were not sufficient to prove that Sung was cheating followers out of their money.
Although the photos have been proven to have been doctored, the court said it was a case of religious belief where faith is more important than authenticity.
It would be difficult to prove that Sung does not have supernatural powers and that the publication of Sung's photo albums was a fraud scheme, the court said.
The constitution protects religious freedom, banning the law from defining and intervening in people's beliefs, the court stressed.
Chang Nai-jen, who said that Sung was a cheat, vowed to continue pursuing his ex-master by taking the case to Supreme Court.
But Sung claimed Chang was making the "false" accusations out of revenge because he had foiled a fundraising scam conceived by Chang.