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China Frees a California Man Imprisoned for 8 Years


BEIJING — Chinese authorities have released one of the longest-serving American prisoners in China, a La Canada man who spent more than eight years behind bars, largely unknown to the public even though his name topped the list of citizens whose release the U.S. government sought.

David Chow, 54, was freed Sept. 19 and put on a flight to Los Angeles the next day. He had an emotional reunion at LAX on Sept. 20 with his wife, two sons and members of his church.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Chow said, "What I want to tell other people is, China is not ready yet for people to go there and do business, not until they become more civilized, until they respect human rights."

Chow's release came a month before Chinese President Jiang Zemin is to visit President Bush at his Texas ranch, and observers said other high-profile prisoners might be freed before the Oct. 25 summit.

Arrested in 1994 and sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of attempted fraud, Chow was all but forgotten in the Chinese penal system, deprived of due process and abused in detention, he claims.

In the last year, there have been several highly publicized cases of ethnic Chinese citizens or residents of the U.S. charged with espionage and other serious crimes. After strong objections from Washington, Beijing has released most of those detainees.

U.S. officials initially viewed Chow's case as an economic matter, not a human rights issue, and he spent six years in prison before high-ranking Clinton and Bush administration officials began negotiating for his release. Also in contrast to other cases, Chow's family refrained from publicizing his plight until after his release.

"In terms of arbitrary detention and denial of due process, David Chow's case is one of the most serious I've seen," said John Kamm, head of the Duihua Foundation, a San Francisco-based human rights organization. Kamm, who worked on Chow's case for many years, said he was encouraged by the implications of the release.

"I hope that this experience can be put to good use in other cases of parole involving Americans," he said.

Chow's wife, Emily, said the strain of trying to raise their two sons and maintain her career has been tremendous. The boys have grown into adolescence without their father's care. David Chow's father died in a Los Angeles-area hospital this spring without any knowledge of his son's imprisonment.

Chow's case illustrates how foreign passports can offer scant protection for ethnic Chinese caught up in the local politics of business disputes in China.

Chinese officials "are always telling the whole world that they abide by the law. This is a joke," Chow said. "Just look at my case."

Chow had been working in the import-export business, traveling between Los Angeles and Hong Kong. His troubles began when officials and bankers from the northeastern city of Harbin contacted him through mainland Chinese businessmen in Hong Kong. They asked him to help them secure a billion-dollar loan from foreign banks to build roads and stadiums for the 1996 Asian Winter Games. Chow said that when Beijing authorities alleged improprieties in the loan deal, the local officials tried to pin the blame on him, accusing him of forging letters of credit.

The loan application was never completed, and no financial losses were incurred.

Authorities detained Chow for questioning on April 14, 1994, and formally arrested him May 27. He was held for two years before going to trial, far longer than the six-month limit for pretrial detention specified by Chinese law.

Chow was held in Harbin, known for its frigid winters. The Chinese Ministry of Justice said Chow suffers from hypertension, coronary arterial disease, angina, cerebral arteriosclerosis and kidney stones.

Chow said the ordeal left him "stressed and depressed and confused. I have nightmares sometimes." His family members said their strong faith helped them through the experience.

U.S. officials had argued that Chow was eligible under Chinese law for medical parole. Chinese officials offered no explanation for his release. However, when Chow looked at his release papers Thursday, he found that the arrest date had been changed from 1994 to 1987, implying that he had served his entire sentence.

Chow said authorities abused him while he was in detention.

"They hit me and threatened me and asked me to say what they wanted me to say, but I had to tell the truth, and that's why they don't like me," he said, adding that he never made any confession.

Chow also said that U.S. diplomats asked him whether he would agree to admit guilt if Chinese authorities would expel him from China after sentencing.

"I answered: 'No, I'm innocent. Why should I accept any of the charges?' " Chow recalled.

A 15-year sentence is harsh for an economic crime and longer than those of Chinese citizens convicted of major political crimes. During Chow's detention, his family watched cases of other detainees with ties to the U.S. receive publicity in the media.

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