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China frees researcher for New York Times

September 15, 2007|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Zhao Yan, the New York Times researcher imprisoned after the newspaper published an exclusive article about the Chinese leadership, was released Saturday into the arms of friends and family after three years in jail.

Zhao, who was detained in a Shanghai restaurant Sept. 17, 2004, and placed under formal arrest three days later, initially was charged with revealing state secrets, which carries a 10-year sentence.

He was acquitted in August 2006 but convicted of an unrelated fraud charge that had been added when he was in custody, and was sentenced to three years. Because he already had been in jail for nearly two years, his sentence ran until today.

The Communist government refused to release Zhao early despite calls for clemency by President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other top U.S. officials and international rights groups.

"These three years I have missed my family very much, especially my maternal grandmother, who is now more than 100 years old," Zhao said in a written statement shortly after his early-morning release. "For that reason I want some time to reunite with my family."

Zhao was convicted of taking $2,500 in return for a promise to use his connections to get a man's 18-month sentence in a labor camp reduced, according to state media. He said he had not taken the money.

Human rights groups say China has a history of using vague and overly broad charges for political purposes. The courts are ultimately answerable to the Communist Party.

"Politics had a big impact on this case," Guan Anping, Zhao's lawyer, said in a telephone interview, adding that an appeal was being considered. "Zhao Yan was wrongfully accused."

Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog group, termed Zhao a scapegoat. Shortly before Zhao's detention, The New York Times published an exclusive report that former President Jiang Zemin, then serving as military chief, planned to retire. China makes most leadership decisions in secret and officials reportedly were livid about the leak.

Zhao's case has coincided with what critics say has been a tightening by President Hu Jintao's administration on domestic media, civic organizations, social activists and other groups who might pose even a slight political threat -- even as it tries to narrow the rich-poor gap, fight corruption and reaffirm the Communist Party's legitimacy.

"This release is certainly a great thing for Zhao as an individual," said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. "But on a larger scale, on letting Chinese media or citizens speak out more, there's no change."

Those who met Zhao at the prison gate said he appeared happy and at one point he teared up with emotion. "He's in very good spirits," said Zhao Kun, his sister. "But he's also a bit thin."

Jerome A. Cohen, a New York University law professor and consultant to the New York Times, said the case had exposed flaws in China's legal system, including the practice of adding a second and flimsier charge when a more substantial charge falls through. He characterized it as a "fig-leaf afterthought."

The case also underscored China's practice of not allowing witnesses to appear in court for cross-examination.

But the case also pushed legal boundaries in a couple of ways as well, Cohen added. For the first time in memory, a defendant on state secrets charges was not convicted, he said. And the international glare appeared to throw the Chinese leadership and various security and legal agencies into disarray, as charges were raised, dropped and raised again.

"We made legal history, but the price was too high," he said in an e-mail response to questions from the Los Angeles Times.

The fraud charge, added in April 2005, stemmed from a 2001 incident in Jilin province, when Zhao was working as an investigative reporter at a Chinese magazine before he joined the New York Times. According to state media, Feng Shanchen, a village official, testified that Zhao boasted that he could get Feng's labor camp sentence overturned by using his connections in Beijing.

The prosecution and imprisonment of Zhao has added to China's image as a repressive state even as it tries to burnish its image in advance of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The government is also trying to balance the push by its own citizens for more accountability and its bid to maintain its grip on power.

China is believed to be the world's leading jailer of journalists, with at least 28 in prison, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a media watchdog group, many on charges of violating vague security or subversion laws. Fifty-one cyber-dissidents also reportedly have been detained.

"We have said all along that Zhao Yan is an honorable, hard-working reporter whose only offense seems to have been practicing journalism," said Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times.

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

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Yin Lijin in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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