One of Heilongjiang's most celebrated lawyers was released yesterday after nearly two years in prison after his 11-year sentence was overturned by a Harbin court, local newspapers reported. In February, a local court sentenced Sun Xiaopo to 11 years in prison for accepting bribes amounting to 255,000 yuan (HK$240,000), a sentence he appealed. Mr Sun, 61, who headed one of Harbin's biggest law firms from 1990 until his retirement in 1998, accepted the 255,000 yuan in fees for representing clients, all large state companies, in three major cases from 1994 to 1996. This was not disputed by the prosecution. But the prosecution argued that, because Mr Sun's firm was a collective, he should be considered an employee of the state. Therefore he should have handed the money over to the firm and should not have kept it for himself. Doing so amounted to theft of state funds. The defence argued that when Mr Sun represented the three clients he was acting as a lawyer and not as a state employee and was therefore entitled to keep the money. The Harbin city intermediate court on Tuesday accepted the defence argument and freed Mr Sun after 582 days in custody. He had been detained on October 20, 1998. The city's newspapers yesterday showed Mr Sun weeping with emotion as he left the court to be reunited with his family. He was dressed in the striped uniform of the prison where he had been held. Mr Sun is one of the most famous lawyers in Heilongjiang province. The Ministry of Justice gave him citations as a 'first-class lawyer' in 1990 and 1992, and he received awards as a model worker. He was also director and Communist Party secretary of the city's opera troupe. Mr Sun's case aroused fierce debate in legal circles on the mainland and raised the issue of the extent to which lawyers are or should be independent of the state. Many lawyers welcomed the decision, saying it raised their professional status. But some in Harbin said Mr Sun was freed because of his connections. 'He knew many people in the Government, and major state companies lobbied on his behalf,' said one businessman. 'Had he been a young lawyer with no connections, he'd have served his sentence.'