Thursday, January 30, 2003

( A Menlo Park man who practices the Chinese spiritual exercise of Falun Gong has been arrested in China on suspicion of sabotaging radio and television broadcasting systems. Friends, however, say he is being persecuted for his beliefs.

The U.S. State Department confirmed Wednesday that Charles Li, 37, had been arrested at Guangzhou's airport on Jan. 22. Li, an American citizen, is being held in Yangzhou in Jiangsu province, where he awaits trial on charges of sabotage. If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison.

A State Department official said a U.S. consular officer had visited Li in prison for 30 minutes on Tuesday and provided him with a list of lawyers.

The department did not comment on the nature of the charges against Li. Fifteen members of Falun Gong were sentenced last September to up to 20 years in prison for [tapping] into cable TV networks in northeastern China and transmitting films protesting the government's persecution of the spiritual movement.

But friends of Li's say he has been arrested solely because of his participation in Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, a meditational exercise that was banned by the Chinese government in 1999.

"The real reason he was arrested is because he's a practitioner of Falun Gong. That's enough of a charge to arrest him in China," said Erpin Zhang, spokesman for the Falun Dafa Information Center in New York.

Since the Chinese government began its [persecution of] Falun Gong, followers say more than 100,000 people have been sentenced to labor camps, and hundreds have died at the hands of government torture.

Zhang said the arrest was a chilling warning to Chinese Falun Gong followers abroad. On the same day as Li's arrest, Zhang said Nancy Chan, an Australian citizen, was also detained while entering China.

He said they were some of the first cases in which the government had detained foreign nationals because of their involvement with the banned group.

"The Chinese government is not only persecuting Chinese citizens but foreign nationals purely for their beliefs," Zhang said. "That's a violation of human rights, and we shouldn't tolerate it."

Calls to the Chinese Consulate on Wednesday seeking comment were not returned.

Li emigrated to the United States from China in the early 1990s and worked at Harvard University as a medical researcher. He moved to the Bay Area in 2000 to start an export-import business that traded in herbal medicines, said his girlfriend, Yeong-Ching Foo of Santa Clara.

"I'm very concerned for his safety," said Foo. "He should have never been arrested. He's done nothing wrong at all. He's a U.S. citizen, and he should be released immediately."

Foo said Li, who became a citizen last year, was traveling to China for business and to meet with his relatives for the Lunar New Year holiday. He visited China at least once a year with his last visit coming in October.

Foo, also a Falun Gong practitioner, fears that the Chinese government has been compiling a blacklist of noted Falun Gong members. She believes Li's name was obtained through a local Falun Gong Web site that listed his name as a contact person.

Foo said that the couple often practiced the spiritual exercise early in the morning together at a park in Foster City and at Stanford University. "He felt Falun Gong was good because it teaches people to be truthful and compassionate, and it clears the mind and body," she said.