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Chinese Guru Is Released by U.S. in Guam

Asylum: Beijing accuses Zhang Hongbao, who fled mainland, of rape. American conservatives had pleaded his case.

April 18, 2001|ANTHONY KUHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BEIJING — Backed by conservative U.S. congressmen and represented by a former trial lawyer for O. J. Simpson, the leader of one of China's largest spiritual groups was released from custody this week in the U.S. territory of Guam, according to attorneys involved in the case.

Zhang Hongbao, founder of the Zhong Gong school of the ancient Chinese practice of qigong, was detained by immigration officials after entering the territory on a false passport last year and losing a bid for political asylum. He is wanted by Chinese authorities on multiple rape charges.

With Monday's ruling, Zhang is free to move to the U.S. mainland or another country. But as an immigration parolee, he must notify the Immigration and Naturalization Service of his movements. Zhang's appeal of the original ruling that denied him asylum is pending.

The guru's changing fortunes may have hinged on the change of administrations in Washington, as well as the recent chill in U.S.-Chinese relations. China's critics in the U.S. government gained ammunition with the standoff between the two nations after the April 1 collision of military aircraft over the South China Sea and the 11-day detention of a U.S. spy plane's 24 crew members.

"In the present administration, people are more inclined to support someone like Mr. Zhang," said Charles Kinnunen, one of Zhang's lawyers, speaking from Guam by telephone. "They believe he's a patriotic individual and an anti-Communist."

Zhang, 47, also is represented by Century City-based attorney Robert Shapiro, a member of the defense team during Simpson's 1995 criminal trial on murder charges.

Shapiro said in a statement, "I was convinced that Mr. Zhang would be executed if returned to China and he posed no flight risk if admitted to the [U.S.] mainland while his case was pending."

Last month, Republican Sens. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Bob Smith of New Hampshire wrote to Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft telling him that "jailing Mr. Zhang or releasing him is a purely discretionary matter within your authority."

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) also wrote to Ashcroft on Zhang's behalf.

The extensive discretionary powers of Justice Department and INS officials to decide the fates of asylum-seekers such as Zhang led to his detention on Guam for 13 months, his supporters say.

His supporters suggest that Janet Reno, attorney general during the Clinton administration, pushed to deny Zhang asylum out of fear of upsetting relations with the Communist regime. The September decision came the same week that Congress approved permanent normal trading status for China.

In June, Judge Dayna Dias of the INS Executive Office for Immigration Review had told Zhang that he would be granted asylum, with the official ruling to come in July. But the decision was delayed as INS officials examined Chinese documents detailing rape charges against Zhang.

According to Chinese authorities, the alleged victims claimed to have been raped by Zhang between 1990 and 1998, both before and after he slipped out of China in 1994 and moved among Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.

The INS sent the documents to experts at the State Department and the Library of Congress. Both found the documents suspect.

INS rulings seldom go against State Department and Library of Congress findings, said lawyer Kinnunen. But on Sept. 21, Dias denied Zhang's asylum appeal based on her administrative discretion, while allowing Zhang to remain on U.S. territory.

Zhang founded Zhong Gong--shorthand for China Life Cultivation and Wisdom Enhancement Skill--in 1987. The group claims about 30 million followers worldwide. It promotes one of hundreds of styles of qigong, or traditional breathing exercises based on Chinese medical and philosophical principles.

Chinese authorities have shut down several of these groups since 1999, when Beijing outlawed the Falun Gong spiritual group as an "evil cult."

Zhong Gong claims that Chinese police have arrested about 600 of its followers and closed down more than 3,000 of its business subsidiaries.

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