China drops charges against New York Times

A Chinese court on Friday dropped charges against a Chinese researcher for The New York Times who was accused of leaking state secrets, his lawyer said. The decision came shortly before a visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to Washington . Zhao Yan, who worked for the Times' Beijing bureau, was detained in September 2004, prompting an outcry by press freedom groups.

"The prosecutor decided to drop the case and the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate Court agreed," said defense lawyer Mo Shaoping. He said Zhao was in a detention center but was expected to be released "very soon." Asked why the charges were dropped, Mo cited a regulation that said prosecutors may dismiss a case if a defendant isn't believed to be the one who committed the criminal act or the facts are in question. Mo wouldn't give any other details.

The case threatened to overshadow Hu's trip to Washington in April, his first state visit to the United States since being named president in 2003. Press freedom groups had appealed to U.S. President George W. Bush to lobby Hu for Zhao's release.

The government has not disclosed details of the charges against Zhao, but he was believed to have been detained in connection with a Times report in 2004 on former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin's plans to step down from a key military post. China 's secretive Communist Party rarely reveals details about leadership changes and treats leaks as a form of spying. Zhao is one of several journalists recently detained or sentenced to long prison terms under China's vaguely defined state secrets law.

Zhao was indicted in December in a step that the Times described as tantamount to conviction. The newspaper said Zhao was not involved in the story. Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, described the decision by Chinese authorities to withdraw the case as "thrilling news for all of his colleagues," the Times reported.

"We are grateful to the many people outside the paper who spoke up on his behalf," Keller was quoted as saying. "The notion that Zhao Yans work for the Times constituted anything but dogged journalism has seemed to us ridiculous from the outset." Thirty-two journalists were jailed in China as of Dec. 1, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Most were held under national security or subversion laws.

In December, the Paris-based journalism group Reporters Without Borders named Zhao winner of an award honoring "journalists who, through their work, attitude or principled stands, have shown a strong commitment to press freedom." The Chinese government criticized the award, suggesting it might encourage other journalists to "steal secrets", reports the AP.


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