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Falun Gong lawsuit tests 215-year-old U.S. law

Zhao Zhizhen, the director of a local television station in Wuhan, China, was in New Haven, Conn., last summer when followers of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice banned in China, served him with a federal lawsuit.

His station's programs, they said, had incited violence against them in China.

Lawsuits against Chinese officials by the movement's adherents in courts around the world are not unusual, and the officials typically ignore them.

But Zhao, who says the lawsuit challenges his honor as an independent and objective journalist, has taken a different approach. In a filing on Thursday in U.S. District Court in New Haven, he said American free speech principles should protect him.

The plaintiffs in the case, a class action, said in their court papers that the broadcasts Zhao produced and supervised were propaganda "reminiscent of Nazi stereotypes of Jews and Ku Klux Klan stereotypes of African Americans."

Zhao, who has returned to China, responded that his programs cast a skeptical eye on the unusual claims made for the movement's practices.

The case tests the bounds of the Alien Tort Statute, a 215-year-old law that allows foreigners to sue in federal court over serious human rights violations anywhere in the world. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a separate case, upheld the law but said lower courts should apply it cautiously.

Falun Gong is a form of qigong, an ancient Chinese practice of yogalike breathing exercises. "It is seen by supporters as a spiritual group dedicated to inner serenity," Zhao's court papers say, "and by critics as a mind-control cult led by Li Hongzhi, a charlatan who claims supernatural powers."

The Chinese government outlawed Falun Gong in 1999. Members of the movement say they have been sent to prisons, labor camps and mental hospitals and that they have been tortured with electric shocks and nerve-damaging drugs. Independent human rights groups have confirmed many of the charges.