Son pleads for release of father imprisoned for religion in China

MISSISSAUGA — A Mississauga man is calling for the release his father, who is being held in a Chinese detention centre for following the banned Falun Gong religion.

Paul Li says his father, Li Xiaobo, has spent the past four months in Longquanyi detention centre in the south-central China awaiting trail for being a supporter of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that Beijing has outlawed.

Li says his father, who is 58, has little chance of a fair hearing and will likely face a lengthy prison sentence if his case is allowed to go to trial.

The Chinese government has faced international criticism for its harsh suppression of Falun Gong since it declared it a "heretical" organization and began a crackdown on followers in 1999. Tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners are believed to have been imprisoned in China's detention centres and "re-education through labour" camps.

Li's father previously spent eight years in prison for his beliefs, being released in 2012, and now Li fears the same fate awaits him again.

"We have found a lawyer willing to represent him, but even so, there is no possibility of a fair hearing," he said. "If the trial goes forward, my father will be sentenced to prison again, and his life will be in danger."

Li, a Canadian citizen, was arrested with his father in the city of Chengdu in April when police caught them distributing leaflets about state repression of Falun Gong. He had moved to Chengdu from Mississauga to live closer to his father in 2009.

The pair were sent to a detention facility but Li, who is also a Falun Gong practitioner, was released four days later once it emerged he holds a Canadian passport. He was ordered to leave China immediately but Xiaobo, who is a Chinese national and not a Canadian like his son, remains imprisoned.

Li has now returned to Mississauga where he lives with his mother and is campaigning to have his father freed.

"I am urgently calling for the international community's support to help get my father released and reunited with me in Canada," he said.

Li is fearful for is father's safety as he alleges Xiaobo was tortured during his previous term in jail. According to Li, Falun Gong adherents like his father were regularly beaten by guards, forced to stand naked outside in winter and deprived of food and sleep. In some cases, he claims, they were forced to lick their own blood off the walls. The News has not seen any proof of these specific allegations, but they are similar to numerous reports of physical abuse against Falun Gong practitioners in Chinese detention centres.

Brad Butt, MP for Mississauga-Streetsville, has thrown his support behind Li's cause and at his request Foreign Affairs has spoken with Chinese diplomats. Although Ottawa's leverage in this case is limited as Xiaobo is not Canadian, Butt said the federal government frequently makes its views on China's treatment of religious minorities known and that such pressure could have an effect.

"Sometimes there can be some moral suasion on behalf of Canada to ask the Chinese government to look at this individual's circumstances and determine whether there is some additional role that they can take," he said.

That point was echoed by Joel Chipkar, vice-president of the Falun Dafa Association of Toronto, who said that public attention in Canada could have influence on the ground in China.

"We find that it does help for the prison guards, the police who are involved, they see that this case is important and they had better watch their step," he said.