July 21, 2003 Monday

About 5,000 protesters demonstrated on Capitol Hill Monday urging the release of Charles Li - a 37 year old former Cambridge resident and doctor at Harvard's Massachusetts General Hospital - from a Chinese prison.

Li - an American citizen who practices the popular Chinese meditation exercise Falun Gong - was arrested in January after arriving at Guangzhou Airport China. In March, the Chinese government sentenced him to prison for three years, charging that he intended to tap into the state-run TV system.

Li reportedly planned to broadcast informational videos about Falun Gong over Chinese airwaves. The practice has been illegal in China for more than four years.

Li's connections to the Cambridge area stem back to the early 1990's, when he accepted a job as a medical researcher at the Massachusetts General Hospital. He moved to Menlo Park, Calif., in 2000.

The marchers - which started [Washington Monument] to the Capital - contend that Li is innocent of the charges against him.

The Chinese government "calls it sabotaging a television station," said Dan Chen, a Falun Gong practitioner from Boston who participated in the demonstration. "It wasn't sabotaging. Everything the Chinese government [airs] is slander. Everything's anti-Falun Gong."

"He went to China in the hope of broadcasting the truth of Falun Gong to the Chinese people," said Allen Zeng, a friend of Li's from San Jose, Calif. "It was justified and courageous. He should be free."

Protesters carried brightly colored "Bring Jiang to Justice" signs - referring to former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin - calling for the prohibition on Falun Gong to be lifted.

"Zemin banned it because he thought it was too popular," Zeng said. "He found it to be a threat."

Zeng called the practice of Falun Gong "very apolitical."

Falun Gong, sometimes referred to as Falun Dafa, is a custom that has spread worldwide since it was publicly introduced in 1992, according to the Friends of Falun Gong [at] New Jersey. It emphasizes the use of truthfulness, compassion and tolerance in everyday life through simple exercises.

Peter Houben, a Falun Gong practitioner from the Netherlands, said the Chinese government is depriving Li of several fundamental human rights.

"He has tried to write letters but they were blocked," he said. "It was announced that he is being tortured. They have ten other convicts in his cell at all times watching him. They beat him and punch him. They do not let him practice Falun Gong."

Falun Gong websites estimate that nearly a million Chinese are currently have either been detained or sentenced to labor camps or jails for practicing Falun Gong.

Zeng practiced Falun Gong for three years with Li and California, and called him "a great man."

"He is a very quiet man," Zeng said. "I didn't know he had so much courage."

Houben said that he traveled all the way from Europe to march because of the lack of worldwide recognition about the persecution of those who practice Falun Gong in China - including Li.

"I feel pained when I read the news about my fellow practitioners in China," he said. "Everyday I read about people being tortured and raped. I can practice in Holland and everywhere in the world - but not in China."