Tortured Member of Banned Chinese Sect Recovering in Houston

HOUSTON — A member of the Falun Gong sect tortured in China before a harrowing escape to the United States was due to be released from a Houston hospital Saturday after treatment for severe burns.

Tan Yongjie, who hitchhiked to Houston after escaping to Hong Kong and stowing away aboard a California-bound cargo ship, was admitted to Park Plaza Hospital July 13 after his wounds opened.

"He's had extensive skin graft surgery on his legs," said Jack Xiong, a member of the Houston Falun Gong community, adding that doctors expect Tan to make a full recovery.

Tan was expected to return to the Star of Hope homeless shelter, where he was living before his admission to the hospital. Xiong was hopeful the estimated 100 to 200 local Falun Gong members could help Tan.

Through translators, Tan said his story began as a factory worker in Baoan, Guangdong Province, where he began practicing Falun Gong since June 1998. China banned the sect in 1999, and Tan said he was detained 15 days for different times, each time refusing to renounce his beliefs.

Tan said he was arrested April 26 for distributing fliers calling for an end to government persecution of Falun Gong members. He said he was beaten, then sent without trial to a labor camp in Baluo County.

After repeated torture sessions, Tan said he was hung by handcuffs for more than five hours. On June 2, Tan said he was tied to a post and burned about his legs 13 times with a red-hot iron rod, urging him to give up Falun Gong.

Tan escaped the camp soon after and fled to Hong Kong, where he sneaked aboard a cargo ship headed to Long Beach, Calif.

"He didn't even know where the ship was going," Xiong said.

After two weeks of living in a crate at sea, Tan said he caught a ride with someone headed to Florida on Interstate 10 and was dropped off in Houston. Houston police directed him to the Star of Hope shelter.

Falun Gong attracted millions of followers in the 1990s with a blend of slow-motion exercises and ideas drawn from Buddhism, Taoism and the group's exiled leader, Li Hongzhi.

Thousands of followers are in jails and labor camps and tens of thousands have been arrested and pressured to renounce the group in the government crackdown. Falun Gong says many followers have been tortured and that 250 have been killed, including 50 in the last month.

The government banned Falun Gong as a threat to Communist Party rule and Chinese society.

"On one hand, we'd like people (in Houston) to help Mr. Tan, but also we'd like everyone to know what is going on in China," Xiong said. "We hope this will spur some kind of action to alleviate the situation in China."

Xiong said Tan intends to return to China some day. His immigration status in the United States is uncertain, but Xiong said he is hopeful Tan can stay based on religious persecution by his native government.

"Basically, he is not sure quite what to do," Xiong said. "His plans are not very definite."