April 8, 2003

Some local lawmakers are questioning the conviction and sentencing of Charles Li, a University alumnus and American citizen, who received three years in prison and deportation for [false charges] in China more than two weeks ago.

Police arrested Li, 38, on Jan. 22 when he arrived at the airport in Guangzhou, China on a flight from California, where he resides.


Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a philosophy of self-refinement following the principles of truth, compassion and tolerance, practitioners say. They perform daily exercises [and incorporate the principles in daily life to improve] the mind and body.

Falun Gong was outlawed in China in 1999; [...]. Falun Gong practitioners say the Communist Chinese government was afraid of the practice's growing popularity.

Practitioners say thousands of people who refused to give up Falun Gong in China sit in jail or labor camps and have been expelled from schools and the army. They say that more than 500 followers have been tortured or killed by the government.

Stuart Patt, consular affairs spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said a U.S. official in China visited Li after the trial and found him in good health but unhappy with the trial. Li is working on writing his own appeal, Patt said.

Patt said the appeal, once submitted, will not be ruled on for at least 30 days. He did not say whether the United States plans to take any action.


However, some local legislators who pushed Li's release earlier are questioning the circumstances surrounding the confession and trial.

State Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, D-Champaign, sent a letter March 18 to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., urging the senator to look into the issue of Li's release.

"That's what we can do is work with Sen. Durbin," she said. "It's a federal issue."

Hao Feng, a University professor and Falun Gong practitioner, said Durbin wrote a letter to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, China, urging Li's release. Feng said the letter was signed by 83 congressmen.

Durbin could not be reached for comment Monday.

U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Ill., signed a letter from other U.S. representatives after Li's arrest in January. The letter called for Li's release, claiming Li was a political prisoner, said Rachael Leman, Johnson's legislative assistant.

"We do have a lot of Falun Gong practitioners in the district, particularly in Champaign-Urbana at the U of I," Leman said. "Concerns over political and religious tolerance have always been important to Rep. Johnson."

Johnson signed the letter before [the trial], but Leman said Johnson's office still questions the charges and the sentence.

"We're still skeptical and want to make sure the Chinese government is handling this in an appropriate way," Leman said. "We're dealing with a country that has not dealt well with political and religious prisoners."


Dongdong Zhang, a University doctoral student and Falun Gong practitioner, said she believes Li refused a lawyer because he knew the trial was just for show. She also said she believes Li's intentions were justified.

"I think all propaganda is negative toward Falun Gong (in China)," Dongdong Zhang said. "There is no official or fair way to let people know the truth.

"[...] ... I think everyone has a right to know the truth in China and they have been deprived of that right."


But many Illinois lawmakers believe Falun Gong practitioners are unfairly persecuted in China and that the United States must watch the situation.

Illinois State Sen. Chris Lauzen, R-Aurora, co-sponsored a resolution calling for an end to persecution of Chinese Falun Gong practitioners. The resolution passed both houses in February.

The resolution was show of support for Falun Gong practitioners, Lauzen said.

"I guess the totalitarian regime feels threatened when more people are practicing Falun Gong than are members of the Communist party," Lauzen said.