A Chinese court has sentenced a researcher for the New York Times newspaper to three years in jail on fraud charges in a case his lawyers and press freedom advocates say is riddled with abuses of power. The court dropped the more serious charge of leaking state secrets, saying prosecutors lacked sufficient evidence.
A Beijing court found New York Times researcher Zhao Yan guilty of fraud, after detaining him for almost two years.
China's official Xinhua news agency Friday said the court sentenced Zhao to a three-year prison term, and ordered him to pay back $2,500 the court says he acquired dishonestly. He also was given a $250 fine.
The fraud charges stemmed from accusations Zhao offered his connections to help someone avoid a sentence to a labor reform camp in exchange for cash. His lawyers and witnesses in his case say Zhao never accepted any money, and the fraud charges are without merit.
Mo Shaoping is one of Zhao Yan's defense lawyers. He says Zhao will likely appeal to have the fraud charges dismissed.
"China's relevant judicial organs did not strictly follow China's laws and regulations in the process of this investigation, review and judgmen," he said.
The court dropped a more serious charge of leaking state secrets, a charge that could have landed Zhao in jail for 10 years or more. The court said prosecutors lacked the evidence to back up the accusation.
The Chinese government has never released details of the state secrets charge. Political analysts think it is related to an article the Times published, correctly predicting that Chinese leader Jiang Zemin would step down as chief of the military.
China's ruling Communist Party guards its internal politics closely.
The Times issued a statement saying the dropping of the charge vindicated Zhao, and proved the paper's position that he never broke the state secrets law.
Human rights organizations say the party uses vague state secrets laws to silence those who criticize or embarrass the party.
Nicholas Becquelin is a China researcher for the group Human Rights Watch. He says Zhao probably would have been sentenced on the states secrets charges, if not for international pressure.
"The sentencing of Zhao Yan shows that the Chinese authorities are not ready to tolerate independent voices in China," said Becquelin. "And in particular, [the authorities] want to frighten Chinese journalists, who would collaborate with foreign media."
Zhao was detained in 2004, 10 days after the Times story appeared.