(08-26) 17:41 PDT SAN FRANCISCO -- A husband and wife from China who fled to California after being arrested and beaten for their adherence to the dissident spiritual movement Falun Gong are eligible for political asylum, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.
Shoufu Zhao and Zhenying Duan have a well-founded fear that they will be persecuted for their beliefs if they are returned to China, said the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, overturning deportation orders by immigration courts. The couple left China in December 2001 and live in the Los Angeles area, their lawyer said.
Zhao and Duan joined Falun Gong for health reasons and continued their practice in private after the Chinese government declared the movement to be an illegal cult in 1999, the court said.
Officers arrested them in July 2001 and held them at a police station for four days, the court said. During one interrogation session, an officer slapped Zhao in the face twice and punched him in the chest, knocking his head into a wall, and told him he could make Falun Gong practitioners disappear, the court said. An officer also hit Duan in the face, kicked her and pulled out some of her hair.
They were released after paying a fine and promising to report to the police station each week. They also promised to abandon Falun Gong, but continued their practice in private before obtaining passports by paying $10,000 to an acquaintance and getting visas to travel to the United States, the court said.
Immigration courts rejected the couple's asylum applications, saying their past treatment did not amount to persecution and noting that they were able to get passports. But the appeals court said the U.S. government's reports on China show that Falun Gong adherents are likely to face persecution.
A 2005 State Department report found that practitioners have been subjected to imprisonment, mandatory psychiatric therapy and torture, and that at least several hundred had died in custody, the court said.
Kevin Long, the couple's attorney, said the court made the right decision. Falun Gong is still outlawed in China, he said, and "any affiliation or practice of it is not only disallowed but could be persecuted."