WASHINGTON (AP) _ Asian Americans who felt targeted as a race in the 1996 Democratic fund-raising scandal have found a new cause in Wen Ho Lee, the former Los Alamos scientist indicted on charges of mishandling U.S. nuclear secrets.

Activism in support of Lee has grown among Asian-American groups, although some are taking a cautious approach until they learn more about the government's case.

``Our parents told us don't make a fuss, stay out of the public eye. But that advice serves no purpose in a diverse democracy,'' said Frank Wu, an Asian-American advocate and law professor at Howard University.

Supporters have created the Wen Ho Lee Defense Fund. The fund has raised about $100,000 so far for his legal bills, much of it at a fund-raiser and rally near San Francisco. Other similar events are planned elsewhere.

The case also has given rise to several sites on the World Wide Web that are providing commentary, news stories and a chat room on Lee's plight.

Karen Narasaki, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, sees Lee's case as a ``watershed'' event.

``This community bought into the notion that if you work hard, pay attention to your family, you will be accepted. This case says its not true,'' Narasaki said.

Lee, a 60-year-old Taiwan-born researcher, is being held without bail for allegedly copying classified data on nuclear weapons technology to computer tapes, seven of which are missing. Lee has said he destroyed the tapes.

The indictment stops short of accusing Lee of passing classified information to a foreign government, and the scientist has pleaded innocent to 59 counts under the Atomic Energy and Espionage Acts. If convicted, the former employee of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico could face life in prison.

Lee has sued the FBI and the Justice and Energy departments, alleging they violated his privacy and wrongly portrayed him as a Chinese spy.

Federal prosecutors deny their investigation was biased and maintain the FBI's skepticism about Lee's statements was justified because he'd lied in the past.

Nancy Choy, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association, said that while the facts of the case are murky, news media have painted Lee as a spy.

``A trial hasn't even started but Dr. Lee is being portrayed as a dangerous foreigner,'' Choy said.

``Its a difficult situation for us at this point because nobody wants get into a full defense of Wen Ho Lee on the merits of the case just yet,'' she added. ``But we all want to make sure he gets his due process and a lot of us feel he hasn't been treated fairly.''

Lee advocates say the outpouring of support for him might not have been as strong were it not for the Democratic fund-raising scandal of 1996, which Asian-Americans say unfairly tainted them.

John Huang, a former Commerce Department official and the Democratic Party's chief fund-raiser for the Asian-American population during the 1996 election, plead guilty to conspiracy to make illegal contributions.

Unlike other minority groups, organizing noisy demonstrations and making public appeals is new to Asian-Americans, Wu said.

It's easy to understand why.

While American Indians, blacks and Latinos have long protested discrimination found in school segregation, unequal voting rights, public accommodations and low educational levels, many of the those conditions are foreign to the nation's 10.2 million Asian and Pacific Islanders.

Asian Americans have the highest median family income of all major census groups _ $49,100 _ and are the best educated. Asian Americans are also most likely to live in a household with two parents. Still, according to Choy, the last few years have brought home the sense that all is not well.

``We are viewed as either invisible or as a model minority group,'' he said. ``But I think we are seeing we still have some ways to go for equal treatment.''