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China drops charges against NYT researcher, to be released soon

China has agreed to drop charges against a Chinese journalist who worked as a researcher for the New York Times. Zhao Yan, jailed since October 2004 after his arrest on charges of fraud and illegally releasing state secrets, is likely to be released soon.

Zhao’s case was threatening to overshadow Chinese President Hu Jintao’s forthcoming visit to the United States. Hu is expected to make his first formal visit as president to the United States in April. His previous trip to Washington was cancelled due to Hurricane Katrina, although he visited the United Nations in New York. China often releases of dissidents or other human rights cases to coincide visits by important leaders to the United States, or a US president to Beijing.

UNDER CHINESE TRIAL: Zhao had been in hiding for several days after learning that he was under suspicion, but was caught by police in a restaurant in Shanghai within moments of turning on his mobile telephone to make a call, to report the presence of a cockroach in his food. He had previously told friends that he was keeping the telephone turned off as he believed the police used it to monitor his whereabouts.

The rare reversal by prosecutors and Beijing court officials came less than three months after Zhao was indicted for disclosing state secrets to the Times and also on a lesser charge of fraud. Zhao, 44, denied the allegations. He was held in an isolation cell at Beijing’s state security prison and lost ten kilos during his imprisonment. The prison authorities reportedly denied him the medical treatment he needed.

“The number of cases in which the prosecutors indict someone on state secrets charges and then withdraw their case is the rarest of the rare,” said Mo Shaoping, the lawyer for Zhao, who noted that the lesser charge also is being withdrawn, the New York Times reported. He said, “To withdraw the case is the equivalent of a verdict of innocence.”

Mo said he learned on Friday morning that prosecutors had asked the Beijing Second Intermediate Court to withdraw the case. Later in the day, the court issued a ruling agreeing that the case would be withdrawn. Mo said Zhao could possibly be freed by Monday, which had been the deadline for holding his trial. But, as yet, Chinese authorities have given no official notice. He said the procedural clause used by prosecutors to withdraw the case could technically allow them to release him on something similar to bail for up to 12 months. At that point, prosecutors would have to decide whether to bring a new case with evidence, he added.

Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, described the decision by Chinese authorities to withdraw the case as “thrilling news for all of his colleagues.” He said, “We are grateful to the many people outside the paper who spoke up on his behalf. The notion that Zhao Yan’s work for The Times constituted anything but dogged journalism has seemed to us ridiculous from the outset.”

“We are absolutely delighted at the announcement of the imminent release of Zhao Yan,” Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) said. “They have finally accepted the innocence of a brave man who became the scapegoat of a government which scorns investigative journalism.” It said, “We thank all those in China and abroad who campaigned for Zhao Yan. The determination of his employer, The New York Times, and his lawyer, Mo Shaoping, were crucial in winning this release.”

The case against Zhao was politically sensitive because it involved the highest levels of the Chinese leadership, making the decision to drop charges all the more remarkable. His arrest was tied to a September 7, 2004 article in the Times, which said former president, Jiang Zemin, had unexpectedly offered to give up his final leadership position as head of the military. The story later proved accurate when Jiang resigned.

Chinese journalists are forbidden from reporting on the inner-workings of the top leadership of the Communist Party. The article prompted a high-level investigation to find the sources of the leak, according to a person familiar with the investigation. State security agents apparently quickly focused on Zhao, who had been an investigative journalist for different Chinese publications before joining the Times’ Beijing bureau as a researcher in April 2004.

Zhao was arrested on September 17 when state security agents found him having dinner at a restaurant in Shanghai. The key piece of evidence, later revealed in a confidential state security report, was a photocopy of a handwritten note that Zhao had written to the Times’ Beijing bureau chief, Joseph Kahn, the author of the article.

The note, written two months before the publication of the article, was unrelated to Jiang’s resignation plans. It described maneuvering between Hu and Jiang over military appointments. Kahn referred to the political jockeying as background material included at the end of the article. It is uncertain how state agents obtained the photocopy. Agents either entered the office without permission or enlisted someone to help them make a copy. Under Chinese law, the note would not have been admissible in court.

Date posted: March 17, 2006 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 2678