China Moves to Put Jailed Times Researcher on Trial
BEIJING, Dec. 23 - A Chinese researcher for The New York Times was indicted today for revealing state secrets to the newspaper and also on a lesser charge of fraud, a move that should send the case to trial within six weeks, his lawyer said.
The researcher, Zhao Yan, 43, who worked in the newspaper's Beijing bureau, has spent 15 months in prison without a hearing. The formal indictment is significant because such a move on state secrets charges is usually tantamount to conviction in China.
Mr. Zhao, who had denied the charges, could face a minimum of 10 years in prison.
"For Zhao Yan's colleagues, family and friends, this is deeply disheartening," said Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times. Mr. Keller lobbied China's Foreign Ministry on Mr. Zhao's behalf during an October visit to Beijing.
"We've seen no evidence whatsoever that he is guilty of anything but honest journalism," Mr. Keller said.
Mr. Zhao's arrest is directly linked to a Sept. 7, 2004, article in The Times that revealed that former Chinese President Jiang Zemin had unexpectedly offered to resign his last leadership post as head of the military. The ruling Communist Party is acutely sensitive to any reporting on the secretive inner-workings of top leaders.
Mr. Zhao's arrest has brought China widespread international condemnation, including criticism from the United States government. In November, President Bush included Mr. Zhao on a list of troubling human rights cases that he handed to Chinese President Hu Jintao during their meeting in Beijing. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has also criticized his arrest.
Two weeks ago, the international press freedom advocacy group, Reporters Without Borders, named Mr. Zhao as journalist of the year.
Mr. Zhao's lawyer, Mo Shaoping, said the belabored manner in which the case was handled underscored its controversial nature and may indicate uncertainty by prosecutors. Twice, prosecutors in Beijing sent the case back to the State Security Bureau for further investigation. Under Chinese law, today marked the last working day for prosecutors to decide whether to go forward with the case.
"There is a question as to whether they have full confidence in their own evidence," Mr. Mo said in a telephone interview from the western Chinese city of Yulin.
Mr. Mo said he has been notified of the indictment but has not yet received a copy of the formal indictment letter. He said he expected the letter would be filed in court next week and would include the charges as well as a list of evidence in the case. Under China's rules of procedure, Mr. Mo said a trial must be held within six weeks, though prosecutors can ask for an extension of one month.
The indictment letter would also indicate whether prosecutors had decided to charge Mr. Zhao with leaking a "juemi," or a high-level form of state secret, as has been recommended by state security agents. If so, he would face at least 10 years in prison. Lesser categories of state secrets bring lighter sentences.
The fraud charge was made several months after Mr. Zhao's arrest and is connected to allegations from 2001, before his employment with The Times. Investigators allege that he took money for offering to write an article for a Chinese newspaper. A witness has come forward disputing the charge, and Mr. Mo has denied the allegation.
Usually, a state secrets trial is closed, and it is unclear whether Mr. Mo will be allowed to mount an aggressive defense. Mr. Mo has indicated that he would try to call Joseph Kahn, the Times's Beijing bureau chief, as a defense witness. But foreigners are not allowed in such proceedings, much less foreign journalists.
Once a muckraking journalist who exposed official corruption and wrote about the abuses endured by farmers, Mr. Zhao started working in the Times's office in Beijing in April 2004. He was arrested on Sept. 17, after state security agents tracked him to a Pizza Hut in Shanghai. Agents had targeted him after a high-level investigation was ordered in response to the article in The Times about Mr. Jiang.
That article, written by Mr. Kahn, cited two anonymous sources in reporting Mr. Jiang's resignation offer. (Mr. Jiang later did resign the military post.) The Times has said that neither source was Mr. Zhao. Indeed, according to a confidential state security report, the key piece of evidence is a photocopy of a handwritten note that Mr. Zhao wrote to Mr. Kahn two months before the publication of the article.
The note describes some jockeying between Mr. Jiang and Mr. Hu over military appointments. Mr. Kahn later included a reference to such jockeying as background material in one of the final paragraphs in the Sept. 7 article.
A central question is how state security agents obtained the photocopy. The original note remains in the Times office in Beijing, suggesting either that agents entered the office without permission or enlisted someone to help them make a copy. In either instance, the note should be inadmissible under Chinese law, legal experts say.
Mr. Zhao's arrest is part of a broader media crackdown in China. In April, a Chinese newspaper reporter, Shi Tao, was sentenced to 10 years after being convicted of giving state secrets to foreigners. That same month, Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong-based reporter for a Singapore newspaper, was detained and later charged with spying for Taiwan.