China drops secrets case against New York Times researcher
BEIJING – A court dismissed state secrets charges against a Chinese researcher for The New York Times in a surprise move Friday ahead of a visit by President Hu Jintao to Washington.Zhao Yan, who worked in the Times’ Beijing bureau, was detained in September 2004, prompting an outcry by free press activists, who appealed to President Bush to lobby Hu for his release.Zhao was still in a detention center Friday but was expected to be released “very soon,” his defense lawyer Mo Shaoping said.”The prosecutor decided to drop the case and the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate Court agreed,” Mo said.Asked why the charges were dropped, Mo cited a regulation that said prosecutors may dismiss a case if a defendant isn’t believed to be the one who committed the criminal act or the facts are in question. Mo wouldn’t give more details.Hu’s trip to Washington in late April will be his first since becoming president in 2003, and the Zhao case threatened to add complications to a visit that comes amid tensions over trade and Taiwan.”The timing of the decision ahead of President Hu’s visit to the United States demonstrates that the justice system is subservient to political considerations,” Ann Cooper, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement.China is believed to have jailed more journalists than any other government, with 32 behind bars, mostly on charges of violating national security or subversion laws, according to the CPJ.The government has not disclosed details of the charges against Zhao, but he was believed to have been detained in connection with a Times report in 2004 on former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin’s plans to step down from a key military post.China’s secretive Communist Party rarely reveals details about leadership changes and treats leaks as a form of spying. Zhao is one of several journalists recently detained or sentenced to long prison terms under China’s vague secrecy law.The newspaper said Zhao was not involved in the story.Zhao was indicted in December in a step that the newspaper described as tantamount to conviction.Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, said the decision by Chinese authorities to withdraw the case was “thrilling news for all of his colleagues.””We are grateful to the many people outside the paper who spoke up on his behalf,” Keller said. “The notion that Zhao Yan’s work for the Times constituted anything but dogged journalism has seemed to us ridiculous from the outset.”In December, the Paris-based journalism group Reporters Without Borders named Zhao winner of an award honoring “journalists who, through their work, attitude or principled stands, have shown a strong commitment to press freedom.”The Chinese government criticized the award, suggesting it might encourage other journalists to “steal secrets.”Vail, Colorado
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