Parsippany, USA - What 80-year-old John Shen knows is this: His son is dead and his daughter-in-law is imprisoned because of their activism with the Falun Gong.
In the nearly eight years since they were arrested in China, Shen has labored to free Luo Fang from a Chinese jail cell while he grapples with his son’s death.
Shen says Luo and his son Shen Lizhi are some of the thousands of prisoners who have been arrested over the past decade for being a practitioner of Falun Gong, a lifestyle that has its roots in an ancient Chinese tradition but is considered a cult by Chinese authorities.
“We are a peaceful people. We’ve done nothing wrong,” said Shen, also a Falun Gong follower, through an interpreter.
Now, he says, Luo’s salvation rests on the U.S. Department of the State and President Barack Obama, who is in China this week.
The struggle to free Luo has been a long and frustrating one, a fight that’s been slowed by what Shen believed was politics between the two nations.
The paperwork on Luo is sparse, though she was included in a 2005 United Nations civil and political rights report that described the reports of her imprisonment as “reliable and credible.”
China started its crackdown on the Falun Gong in 1999, when the movement began to spread across the country and beyond its boundaries.
The Chinese Consulate in New York City last week declined to comment for this article, but the website for the Chinese embassy described the sect as an “anti-humanity, anti-society and anti-science cult.”
According to the Chinese government, thousands of practitioners have died because they refused medical treatment for illnesses and committed self-mutilation or suicide, orders that it claims come from its charismatic leader. Also, the Web site states, “innocent people” have been killed by practitioners.
Rick Ross, a Trenton-based expert on cults, supports that view.
“In my opinion, the Falun Gong is a destructive cult,” Ross said. He called some of their claims “highly exaggerated and made-up stories.”
Shen said those charges aren’t true and maintained that his story is very real. Repeated at street fairs and to elected officials, it’s a tale he’s told to anyone willing to listen.
He’s managed to get the support of Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who have each written letters to China about the treatment of Falun Gong prisoners.
In 2002, authorities arrested Luo, then 31, and Shen Lizhi, then 33, in Chengdu after they were reportedly caught on a bus with Falun Gong fliers. They were taken to a Chengdu detention center, according to the United Nations report.
The couple, who ran an English-language test tutoring business, had been active in promoting the Falun Gong and dispelling misconceptions about it, John Shen said.
Shen Lizhi _ his youngest son _ had only been jailed a few months before he died from “general organ failure,” according to the Global Mission to Rescue Persecuted Falun Gong Practitioners, a nonprofit group that lobbies for the release of Falun Gong prisoners.
The doctor’s report on the death did not reveal any clues about what caused the organ failure, he said. Li Li, the executive director of the Falun Gong rescue group, said her organization was unable to learn how he died.
Stricken with grief, John Shen then focused his attention on his imprisoned daughter-in-law, who was reportedly sentenced in August 2003 to 12 years in prison.
“It was an unusually harsh sentence, even for Falun Gong practitioners,” said Henry Wang, Shen’s friend and fellow Falun Gong believer.
Li said any attempts to see Luo have been rebuffed because she refuses to wear prison garb.
But she said that sources in China have spoken of the horrific treatment of Luo.
For Ross, who has not investigated the Luo case, the dearth of documented evidence is a red flag. He said the rumors of torture are consistent with “exaggerated” claims that he believes are made by Falun Gong practitioners.
Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, disagreed.
“Arbitrary detention is a serious problem in China,” she said. “It can be very difficult to document what happens to the practitioners.”