Jailed 'Times' Researcher Awaits Trial in China

A jailed Chinese researcher for The New York Times is awaiting trial in China. Zhao Yan is accused of divulging state secrets to foreigners, a crime that carries a minimum 10-year prison sentence, and of fraud. He was indicted last week and is expected to go on trial within the next six weeks.

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A Chinese researcher with The New York Times' Beijing bureau is in jail awaiting trial. The researcher was previously an investigative journalist himself. He's accused of divulging secret information to foreigners; in this case, The Times. It's a crime that can carry a minimum 10-year prison sentence. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has the story from Beijing.

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

In an office near the Forbidden City, goldfish dart to and fro in a tank beside the desk of lawyer Mo Shaoping. It's been 15 months since state security agents arrested his client, Zhao Yan, at a Pizza Hut in Shanghai. Mo still hasn't seen the indictment, but what his client tells him, Zhao may stand trial for leaking information about one of the most sensitive events in Chinese politics, the leadership transition. Mo says the charges against his client are groundless.

Mr. MO SHAOPING (Lawyer): (Through Translator) From a legal perspective, whether a national leader retires or not should not be a state secret. Citizens have the right to know about such things.

KUHN: On September 7th, 2004, The New York Times reported that former President Jiang Zemin had offered to resign as head of the military. Jiang did, in fact, stand down 12 days later. Ethan Bronner is the paper's deputy foreign editor. He denies that Zhao was a source for the story.

Mr. ETHAN BRONNER (Deputy Foreign Editor, The New York Times): From our perspective, Mr. Zhao is guilty of nothing but practicing decent and honest journalism. He has--was not involved in any way with the story that has so upset the Chinese authorities.

KUHN: Zhao joined The Times' Beijing bureau after being fired from his job as a reporter at the progressive China Reform magazine. He became known for his reports about confrontations between poor peasants and corrupt officials. Zhao got personally involved in his stories, too, organizing the peasants to try and oust the officials. Legal scholar Li Boguang accompanied Zhao on some of his reporting trips. Li spoke at a teahouse near Beijing University.

Mr. LI BOGUANG (Chinese Legal Scholar): (Through Translator) The lack of democracy and rule of law and the sufferings of helpless peasants inflamed his sense of justice and social responsibility. It made his blood boil and prompted him to adopt several different roles at once.

KUHN: There's no indication so far that Zhao's earlier reporting or activism contributed to his arrest. What is clear is that he was one of China's most flamboyant reporters working for one of the most closely watched foreign media outlets in China.

When foreign correspondents in China get in trouble with the government, they are, at worst, expelled and rarely at that. By contrast, rights groups say China has jailed more of its own journalists than any other country. The Committee to Protect Journalists counted 42 in jail at the end of 2004. Another seems likely to join that number. On Wednesday, Hong Kong's chief executive said that Hong Kong-based reporter Ching Cheong of Singapore's Straits Times newspaper is likely to stand trial in the coming days, accused of stealing state secrets.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

KUHN: Back in his office, lawyer Mo admits that he faces an uphill battle in defending Zhao Yan. The problem, he says, is that the courts have no power to determine what constitutes classified information. That is up to the highly secretive National Administration of State Secrets.

Mr. MO: (Through Translator) So, in fact, it's really the State Secrets department that are trying this case. They decide what is a secret, and the courts just hand down the prison term that corresponds to leaking that type of secret.

KUHN: President Bush and Secretary of State Rice have both raised Zhao's case with China's leadership. China's government has dismissed foreign concerns, saying its judiciary will handle the case according to its own laws. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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