ATLANTA – Peter Yuan Li was beaten, tied up, blindfolded with duct tape and robbed of two laptop computers last week by three Asian men who burst into his suburban Atlanta home with a gun and knife.
He and other Chinese-Americans suspect it was no ordinary robbery.
Li, who works for a newspaper and Web site critical of the Chinese Communist Party, is one of several people tied to China's banned Falun Gong spiritual movement who say they have been harassed and hit with break-ins in the United States by Chinese agents.
They say China has carried its crackdown on dissidents to this country.
FBI spokesman Stephen Emmett said the bureau is looking into the attack on Li for potential civil rights violations and refused to comment on whether the Chinese government was behind it.
The men who broke into Li's home near Duluth spoke Korean and Mandarin and left behind certain valuables, including a camcorder and television, but took his computers, a phone and his wallet, according to Li and the Fulton County police report.
They also demanded unspecified documents and pried open two file cabinets, he said.
"What surprises me is that in the U.S. they could do such things," said Li, a naturalized U.S. citizen who does computer work for the Web site of the Falun Gong-affiliated newspaper The Epoch Times. He now has stitches across his forehead.
Fulton County Detective Gerald Hightower said there is no evidence supporting Li's claim that the attackers were sent by the Chinese government "to send a message to him," but the incident is still under investigation.
Asked about the beating, a man who answered the telephone at the Chinese Embassy in Washington but declined to give his name criticized The Epoch Times as "a propaganda machine of the evil cult" and then said he knew nothing about the attack on Li.
Falun Gong has been the target of a government crackdown in China, which banned the movement as an "evil cult" and a threat to communist rule in 1999.
Members claim that they have been beaten and tortured and that hundreds have been killed in prisons and labor camps. Chinese authorities have denied any mistreatment.
Falun Gong members in the United States have long claimed the Chinese government sends people to harass and threaten them.
"It's always hard to know," said Mickey Spiegel, a researcher in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "But certainly it's something that would need to be investigated."
Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based press freedom group, has seen attacks on Falun Gong members in South Africa, Hong Kong and Australia, but said the one in the Atlanta area might be the most serious case yet.
"We are definitely intrigued by the circumstances in which the attack occurred," said Lucie Morillon, the Washington representative for Reporters Without Borders.
The other cases of harassment in the United States mostly involve threatening phone calls. However, Alex Ma, a vice president for the San Francisco branch of The Epoch Times and a Falun Gong member, said his home was broken into twice last year, and in the first incident, two laptops were taken.
After the first break-in, Ma said, he got a call from an older sister in China, who rarely calls. She asked him to stop doing things the government doesn't like, he said.
Haiying He, a Falun Gong member who lives outside Boston, said he has gotten threatening calls. He also said that his father back in China once passed along a message from officials there that they were keeping an eye on him.
In another instance, Ma said, he got a message on his home phone that was a recording of a cell phone call he had had with another Epoch Times employee. Ma said he is convinced the incidents are part of an effort by Chinese government authorities to intimidate those who criticize them.
"You cannot say this is all coincidence," he said.
Ma, along with Reporters Without Borders officials, said the attack on Li may have grim implications.
"I think it's an upgrading of violence," he said.