WASHINGTON — The family of a Huntington man detained in China for nearly six years is hoping the new attention surrounding Americans held captive overseas — including the arrest of women’s basketball star Brittney Griner — will intensify efforts by the U.S. government to secure his release.
On Wednesday, Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) issued a letter to President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, urging them to “personally intervene” and meet with the family of Kai Li, an American citizen who operated two gas stations on Long Island and who was detained by Chinese authorities in September 2016 at a Shanghai airport. He was sentenced in July 2018 to 10 years in prison on what the family has described as trumped-up espionage charges.
In January 2021 the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion asserting that Li, 60, “is being detained arbitrarily in violation of international law.”
“After six years of unbearable anguish for Mr. Li and his family, please prioritize Mr. Li’s release and make every effort to secure his freedom on humanitarian grounds, as quickly as possible,” Suozzi wrote in his letter.
The letter comes a day after Biden signed an executive order aimed at bolstering the federal government’s ability to sanction those involved in wrongfully detaining Americans or holding them hostage against international law.
Biden signed the order Tuesday amid mounting pressure for his administration to take more aggressive steps to secure the release of detained Americans such as Griner, who has been imprisoned in Russia since Feb. 17 on drug charges after authorities there found hashish oil in her luggage. Griner told Russian authorities in court earlier this month that she unintentionally packed the oil and did not intend to violate Russia’s strict drug laws.
In an interview with Newsday, Li’s son Harrison said “it’s unfortunate” that Griner is being held, but said she is a “very high profile person and it naturally draws more attention to this issue.”
There are more than 60 U.S. citizens wrongfully detained in about 18 countries, according to a list compiled by the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit named in honor of the American journalist abducted and killed in Syria in 2014.
Li’s son said his father’s health has rapidly deteriorated while being held in a Shanghai prison — he has suffered a stroke, developed high blood pressure, shingles and chronic gastritis. He shares a cell with 11 other prisoners and is only permitted out for one hour of weekly exercise, according to accounts he has relayed to his family through limited phone calls.
“It's been extremely, extremely hot in Shanghai, as it's over 100 degrees with very high humidity and record-breaking heat and he's stuck in this little cell with 12 people,” Harrison Li said.
The elder Li also owned an export business specializing in solar panels and technology, and traveled to China every few months on business trips. It was during a trip to mark the one-year passing of his mother that Li was detained by Chinese officials at the Shanghai airport on charges that he was spying on behalf of the FBI. His family has vehemently denied the charges and argued that Li is being held for politically motivated reasons.
Long Island lawmakers have long pressed both the Biden and Trump administrations to aid the Li family. In February 2019, the Long Island congressional delegation, including Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), wrote to Trump urging the White House to intervene. In November 2020 Suozzi and Schumer wrote a letter to Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, urging action, and last November Suozzi, Schumer and the House and Senate Foreign Affairs Committee members issued a letter to Biden calling for renewed focus on Li’s case.
Asked by Newsday about Li’s case, a senior administration official, speaking on background, said Wednesday: “This administration has made tough but important decisions to bring home Americans wrongfully detained or held hostage abroad and we will continue to pursue all possible avenues to secure their release.”
Suozzi said he had the opportunity to speak to U.S. Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens at an event in Washington Wednesday morning honoring Li and other detained Americans. The congressman said Carstens committed to continuing to discuss Li’s case with Suozzi and the Li family.
“One of the most soul-crushing things that can happen is when people feel like we forgot about them,” Suozzi said. “We know word gets back when they know people are advocating on their behalf, so you just have to keep on grinding away.”