CUMBERLAND -- U.S. citizen. Medical doctor. Fianc . Falun Gong practitioner. Prisoner of the Chinese government.

All of those describe Dr. Charles Li.

From left: Lisa Tao, Mike Zheng, A-Yi Yang and Qing-Yun Wang do Falun Gong exercises outside of Cumberland City Hall Wednesday morning as part of a demonstration to raise awareness for Dr. Li, a U.S. citizen held captive in China. (Photo Credit: John A. Bone/Times-News)

In an effort to raise awareness of Li, a Menlo Park, Calif., resident, and Falun Gong, friends and family organized a Coast-to-Coast Rescue Journey that began Aug. 13 in San Francisco.

A group of six brought the drive to the City Hall plaza Wednesday, where it practiced Falun Gong. Numerous signs with photographs were placed on the ground explaining Li's plight. Signatures on petitions calling for Li's release also were sought.

"He's a very friendly, kind, caring person," Karen Hong, a friend of Li's said.

She said the group wants to raise public awareness of Falun Gong along the East Coast as well as plead for the release of Li. Falun Gong is "a traditional Chinese mind/body/spiritual practice" that focuses on truthfulness, compassion and tolerance. More than 100 million people worldwide practice the art that Hong says reduces stress and increases health.

"Actually, the people we reach out to are very friendly and they wish us good luck," Hong of Rockville said.

She said the group would like to make the "final step" in Washington after Li's return.

"One voice or two voices may not be strong enough, but one day, with many voices, we will be strong enough," Hong, who was part of a group that attended a county commissioners meeting some time ago to talk about the practice, said.

But, she said, the effort will not end with Li's release.

"It's a battle we want to definitely be able to overcome and get over with," she said.

Li, who already finished a medical degree in China, came to the United States in the early 1990s, where he earned another medical degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

He went to China this year not only to visit his parents, but also to raise awareness of Falun Gong. He was captured Jan. 22 at the Guangzhou Airport and has been allowed only limited contact with the U.S. Embassy.

Li, who manages his own business in California, has been sentenced to a three-year prison term.

He was able to get a 95-page letter to the U.S. consulate that describes, in part, the treatment he's undergone, including beatings and attempts to brainwash him in an effort to get him to give up his belief. He was on an eight-day hunger strike and was force-fed by police.

Hong said Falun Gong has been practiced for several years but it's only been the last four that people have been captured for no reason. Many of those prisoners are "brutally tortured and prosecuted." China's former President Jiang Zemin banned the practice July 20, 1999. An agency, known as the 610 Office, was created to eradicate practitioners.

Jiang and other government officials have been sued for genocide in U.S. courts.

It's been reported that as of August 2003, 772 people have been killed since 1999. Other estimates put that number at more than 1,600.

She said the Chinese government has "a lot of propaganda and slander" out about the practice.

"They don't have respect for human rights at all, and that's unacceptable," she said. "We're fortunate here and I'm grateful to be here. We've got all the freedom we want."

Hong said the group is encouraging people to contact government officials from the local to the federal levels and ask for Li's release. They're also asked to write the U.S. Embassy.

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