Journalist cleared of leaking state secrets

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 August, 2006, 12:00am

But 3-year prison sentence handed down for fraud

A journalist for The New York Times, Zhao Yan , was cleared of charges of leaking state secrets yesterday, but sentenced to three years' jail after being convicted of fraud.

A verdict handed down by Beijing No2 Intermediate Court ruled that Zhao, 44, was not guilty of 'illegally providing state secrets overseas' because of insufficient evidence.

The verdict confirms that Zhao was detained because of a report in The New York Times which correctly predicted that former president Jiang Zemin would step down as chairman of the Central Military Commission in 2004 and hand the baton to President Hu Jintao .

Zhao was arrested less than two weeks after the report was published on September 7, 2004, but was only charged with fraud six months after he was detained.

The court convicted Zhao, who has already spent two years in jail, of cheating a village official of 20,000 yuan in 2001, before he joined The New York Times. It ruled he was guilty of fraud because he failed to use his connections to help rescind a labour re-education penalty, a form of detention without trial, given to a village party boss after receiving 20,000 yuan from the official.

Zhao's lawyer Guan Anping said the result was a partial success, though they were dissatisfied with the fraud charge.

'We consider it a victory because had Zhao Yan been convicted [on the state secrets charge], the minimum penalty would be 10 years of imprisonment,' he said.

His sister, Zhao Kun , said her brother maintained he had not received money from the official and they would consider an appeal against the fraud conviction. She said she would also apply for medical parole for her brother.

'We will decide whether we will appeal after we meet Zhao Yan on Monday, and I will file a medical parole application too,' she said, adding that her brother was calm on hearing the verdict but looked thinner after two years in detention.

The executive editor of The New York Times, Bill Keller, said in a statement: 'If the verdict is what it appears to be, we welcome it as a vindication. We have always said that to the best of our knowledge, the only thing Zhao Yan committed was journalism.'

While lawyers could not reveal details of the state secret charges, the Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy said the only evidence against Zhao was a scrap of paper provided by a former cleaner in Times' Beijing bureau.

Hong Kong Journalists Association chairwoman Serenade Woo Lai-wan said leadership reshuffles were always a hot topic, and although Zhao was acquitted it was 'unbelievable' a journalist could land in court for revealing such information.