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Push to free Huntington man imprisoned in China on espionage conviction

Li Kai, 56, of Huntington was first detained in 2016 when he traveled to Shanghai to pay tribute to his mother on the anniversary of her death, his son says. Now local officials want President Trump to intervene.

U.S. citizen Li Kai, 56, of Huntington, who

U.S. citizen Li Kai, 56, of Huntington, who is imprisoned in China.   Photo Credit: Li Family

A Huntington man has been sentenced to 10 years in a Chinese prison after being detained on espionage charges during a trip to Shanghai, and five federal lawmakers who represent Long Island are urging President Donald Trump to intervene on his behalf.

“We write again to express our serious concern about the imprisonment in China of Li Kai, an American citizen from Long Island, New York,” read the Feb. 19 letter addressed to Trump and signed by Sen. Charles Schumer and Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford), Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) and Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove).

They joined the family of Li, 56, in asking the president — whose aides have begun trade talks with representatives of Chinese President Xi Jinping — to directly intervene to secure his immediate release.

“The Trump administration must use all tools available to prioritize bringing Mr. Li back home so he can be reunited with his family in New York,” Schumer said.

The State Department, in a statement, urged China to free Li.

“On July 24, 2018, the Chinese court convicted U.S. citizen Kai Li on charges related to espionage. Mr. Li was sentenced to ten years in prison and a 60,000 RMB (approximately 9,000 USD) fine after being subjected to a closed-door trial with delays spanning over a two-year period of detention.

“On January 18, the Chinese High Court upheld the harsh sentence of 10 years. We urge the government of China to allow Kai Li to return to immediately his family in the United States."

Chinese officials at the embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment. Chinese authorities have said they suspected Li, who operated two gas stations on Long Island, of spying on behalf of the FBI and stealing secrets — but his family denies the charges.

“It’s become abundantly clear that his case is political rather than criminal in nature,” said Harrison Li, a son. He said his father was first detained in the fall of 2016 after he got off a plane in Pudong International Airport during a trip to visit family and pay respects to his mother on the anniversary of her death.

Harrison Li said his father’s detention and trial are part of a pattern of American citizens being held by Chinese authorities for political leverage. Two other high-profile cases include Houston-based businesswoman Sandy Phan-Gillis, who was detained in March 2015, convicted and released in April 2017, and Xue Feng, a geologist who was detained in 2007 and later convicted on state secrets charges and sentenced to an eight-year sentence. Xue was released in April 2015.

“Unfortunately, the Chinese government has the authority to declare anything a state secret, even retroactively, which makes the arbitrary detention of foreign nationals on these grounds an especially prudent way of gaining political leverage,” Li's son said.

In demanding Li's release, King said the case could be retaliation for the December indictment by U.S. authorities of two Chinese nationals on cyberespionage charges and the "strong action we've been taking against China on this, the public criticism we've made about Chinese espionage and the theft of intellectual property."

"We had intentionally kept quiet until recently at the request of the family," King said. "Now, the trial is over, the appeals process is exhausted, he’s been sentenced for 10 years, the family asked us to speak out."

With Joan Gralla

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