March 21, 2003, 11:45 a.m.

Today, American citizen Charles Li goes on trial in Yangzhou City, China. Will China's constitution come to the aid of an American prisoner of conscience? Not likely, for in the eyes of the Chinese court, Li is already guilty of the worst possible crime: choosing his own faith.

Li, a physician and American citizen, was detained by the Chinese police as he disembarked from a plane seven weeks ago on his way home to visit his parents. His name was on the "black list" Chinese officials keep of foreigners who practice Falun Gong.

Chinese officials have held Li in isolation for nearly two months, allowing only two 30-minute visits from an American official. Now his captors have demanded he choose a lawyer to defend him in China's courts. Sounds like a good idea, right? Wrong.

Following a 1999 order from China's Justice Bureau, lawyers were forbidden to represent Falun Gong practitioners. In 2001, the Bureau changed its strategy slightly, requiring all pleas to be handled "in accordance with the tone of the Central Government." China's constitution is completely ignored. Hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners in China are currently held without trial and tortured in forced-labor camps; in hundreds of documented cases, such prisoners have been killed during sessions of extreme violence aimed at "curing" them of their peaceful faith.

Li's situation is dire. Choosing a lawyer for this trial would only help validate the notion that any practitioner of Falun Gong could escape China's predetermined "verdict" of guilty. It's a farce to entertain the idea that justice could be served in a state where the top standing orders include, "Eliminate Falun Gong at all costs." In these courts there are no appeals and there are no observers.

Some U.S. officials have said their role is to ensure that Li receives the same legal treatment as a Chinese citizen in the same circumstances would receive. But what exactly is the nature of this "legal treatment?" Anyone even suspected of practicing Falun Gong in China is subject to arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, or worse. This is not true of just a few severe cases. It is state policy. It is pervasive. There is simply no rule of law for practitioners of Falun Gong in China.

In fact, China's legal system is an instrument of persecution, offering a cloak of legitimacy to the process of systematically imprisoning people for their beliefs. China's propaganda-mongers may try to distract foreigners from the ever-mounting atrocities by orchestrating show trials on state TV, but the real evidence abounds.

Now an American is the target.

Detaining and holding Li challenges the values represented -- and ensured by -- his U.S. passport. Indeed, it challenges the U.S. itself. How much do we value the hard-won freedoms we enjoy in our homeland? Should we merely ask that Li receive the same "treatment" as any other Chinese under a persecutory regime, or should we ensure that a fellow American's hard-won freedoms are not trampled in the detainment camps of a foreign regime?

The U.S. State Department should demand the immediate return of Charles Li to U.S. soil. Fair representation does not exist under China's current legal system. Any so-called trial or other show of legal proceedings must be seen for what it is: another weapon of systematic persecution.

-- Lana S. Han practices law in New York.