The long-awaited trial of Zhao Yan has had a bitter-sweet outcome. The New York Times journalist was acquitted of the heinous crime of leaking state secrets, for which he could have been incarcerated for years. But the three-year sentence meted out to him for the dubious and unrelated charge of fraud is enough to make the hearts of well-wishers of the mainland's judicial system sink. That sinking feeling deepens when considering the harsh treatment that blind activist Chen Guangcheng received for what can only be regarded as trumped up charges.
Time and again, state leaders have emphasised the importance of building up the rule of law, and there has been evident progress in recent years. Yet the conduct of mainland courts in the cases of Zhao and Chen has shown that politics, not the law, is still the most important factor driving judicial determinations. That is particularly true in sensitive cases with foreign links.
In other jurisdictions, it would be a laughable notion to regard news about a senior leader's plan to step down from an official position as a state secret. But Zhao was charged with leaking state secrets for being the source of a New York Times story in 2004 accurately disclosing former president Jiang Zemin's plan to resign as chairman of the Central Military Commission. Perhaps, the authorities soon realised their folly of doing so, especially after the arrest sparked worldwide condemnation. But instead of releasing Zhao, investigators dug deep into his past and slapped him with the fraud charge for what he had allegedly done while he was on another job.
Under mainland law, leaking state secrets is a serious offence. Although the legal grounds for charging Zhao were shaky, it is significant to note that no one else is known to have been acquitted of that charge before. His acquittal is believed to be the result of diplomatic pressure from the US and persistent lobbying by The New York Times. Had he not been employed by the most influential newspaper of the world's biggest power, but by a smaller media organisation from a lesser country, Zhao's fate could have been different. Nevertheless, in a face-saving arrangement for his tormentors, the fraud charge was unearthed to keep him behind bars for a period long enough to teach him a lesson and to send a warning to other journalists.
Chen has fared even worse. His overseas links are with human rights activists, who are the thorns in the sides of senior officials, and he does not have the backing of powerful media giants or national governments. Last year he exposed the coercive birth-control measures used by local officials in Shandong to meet the state's targets under the one-child policy. Since then, he has been branded a trouble-maker.
On Thursday, a Shandong court found him guilty of intentionally damaging property and organising a mob to disrupt traffic, when the culprits responsible for those crimes were thugs mobilised by local officials to harass him. His defence lawyer was detained on the eve of the trial and accused of theft. The four years and three months handed out to Chen is not only unjust but disproportionate to his alleged crime of causing damage worth 5,440 yuan.
As we await the outcome of the trial of Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong journalist who works for Singapore's The Straits Times, the verdicts handed down to Zhao and Chen are far from reassuring. Ching is charged with spying for Taiwan, a more serious crime than leaking state secrets. The political clout of his employer is not as strong as The New York Times. His strongest credential is as a patriot, but that may not be of any help. He was deputy editor of the pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po here, but resigned after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Based on available information, the court of public opinion would acquit Zhao, Chen and Ching of their alleged crimes. We can only hope that the court in Ching's case, contrary to those trying the others, will reach the same verdict.