China's government imprisoned a Christian minister on false charges of organizing illegal border crossings as the pastor provided humanitarian aid to an impoverished ethnic group along the border between southern China and Burma, according to the lawyer for the American missionary.
Li Guisheng, who represents Pastor John Cao, said the permanent U.S. resident from North Carolina was sentenced to seven years in prison in China earlier this year on charges he organized illegal border crossings from China into the ethnic enclave in Burma known as the autonomous Wa State.
China has been seeking to influence the Wa State for years. The state was formed in 1989 after the Communist Party of Burma collapsed and split into ethnic armies, including the United Wa State Army, which has 30,000 troops.
Li said in a recent interview in China that since 2013 Cao organized the building of nearly two dozen schools and supported other humanitarian programs aimed at helping the Wa people, who lack basic needs.
The Wa are an ethnic group of mostly farmers living in northern Burma and China's Yunnan Province. The remote territory is the size of Belgium and has around 600,000 people.
"Based on my thorough review and investigation of this case, I truly believe Pastor John Cao is innocent," Li said. "He was wrongfully convicted and punished for saving lives and providing education for the poor."
Li said the facts of the case show that border crossings without permits in the area in question are customary practices that have been used for hundreds of years.
"I am puzzled as to why people at the area can travel back and forth to do all sorts of things, but Pastor Cao cannot even carry out humanitarian work to help the Wa children on the other side of the border," Li said.
"John has found true love in Christ by just doing good deeds in Wa State, but the inconsistent laws and regulations has made it impossible for him to obtain a border pass, and for that he was severely penalized to receive seven years imprisonment, a maximum sentence reserved for organized smugglers and drug traffickers. This is not fair, nor just, nor legal."
Li said after hearing of the Wa's plight and their poor living conditions many Christians in China spontaneously offered help. Christians in China and elsewhere have donated more than 100 tons of clothing and supplies.
The aid has been used to allow Wa children to receive an education and improve their living conditions.
Li said Cao and a group of aid workers for several years crossed into Burma and back into China without incident. But in March 2017 Cao was arrested and charged with organizing illegal border crossings, charges normally used in China to prosecute human traffickers.
All the work done by the pastor to help the Wa has been humanitarian work and in no way is illegal activity, Li said.
The funds to operate new Wa schools were raised by churches in China, and Cao was the person who spearheaded the initiative.
"He called on every church that was touched by God to adopt a school; this made them responsible for building and operating the school, financing school construction, paying teachers' wages, and handling other school expenses," Li said.
"Everyone supports the Wa children of Burma in a spontaneous manner in the love of Jesus Christ," he added.
Li said the Chinese indictment accused Cao of using online information, church events, and other efforts to recruit people to travel to China's Menga-Ah border area in order to illegally cross into Burma.
"In actuality, there is no evidence to prove this," he said.
The Chinese argument is specious, Li noted, because it confuses illegal border crossing with legal educational and humanitarian support projects.
"Volunteer teaching does not equal illegal border crossing," he said.
The Wa State government in Burma also issued a document praising and supporting Cao's work in the region.
Li said he plans to present evidence showing that the government's claims against Cao are not valid and there is no legal evidence to support the charges.
"We are appealing this wrongful conviction at this moment because we think the law should not punish people like Pastor Cao who have been doing humanitarian work," Li said.
"If the government is sincere about building rule of law, the court should allow us to present our evidence and give us a chance to cross-examine the prosecution and their witnesses, and then set Pastor John Cao free. Unfortunately, to date we are not able to do that. The court under pressure refuses to follow the stipulated legal procedures and admit our evidence and rebuttals. Clearly we are far away even from a country with rule by law, not to mention rule of law."
Cao is married to American Jamie Powell and has two sons. He has been a permanent U.S. resident since 1990 but kept his Chinese citizenship in order to continue missionary work in China.
Cao was arrested March 5, 2017 by Yunnan Public Security police. Initially, he was charged with illegal border crossing. Later the charges were upgraded to organizing illegal border crossings.
A year after his arrest, he was sentenced to seven years in prison.
A State Department spokesman told the Associated Press that the U.S. government is "deeply concerned" by Cao's sentence and has urged Beijing to release him on humanitarian grounds.
On June 21, nine members of Congress wrote to Vice President Mike Pence urging him to appeal to the Chinese government for Cao's release.
The lawmakers said the Chinese government began cracking down on Cao's humanitarian work "through unwarranted questioning and forceful closure of several Wa minority schools."
The congressmen said Cao's wife and lawyer believe the "unjust and harsh sentence is a result of his missionary work, his foreign/U.S. contacts, and his Chinese ethnicity."
"Such a cruel prison term against Rev. Cao serves only to coerce and intimidate other Americans from working in China," they stated. "From our knowledge of other similar cases, Rev. John Cao will likely be forced to suffer intentionally poor prison conditions, mistreatment, or even early and mysterious death."
"In light of this situation, we respectfully ask for your assistance in releasing Rev. John Cao from Chinese prison and guidance in safely returning him home to his family and church in North Carolina."
The letter was signed by Reps. Robert Pittenger (R., N.C.), Chris Smith (R., N.J.), Randy Hultgren (R., Ill.), Mark Walker (R., N.C.), Ted Budd (R., N.C.), Richard Hudson (R., N.C.), Walter Jones (R., N.C.), Mark Meadows (R., N.C.), and David Rouzer (R., N.C.).