updated 8/31/2006 1:24:22 AM ET 2006-08-31T05:24:22

A Hong Kong reporter was sentenced Thursday by a Chinese court to five years in prison on spying charges in a case that prompted outcries by press freedom groups.

Ching Cheong’s conviction came amid a government campaign to tighten media controls that has seen dozens of journalists jailed. A Chinese researcher for The New York Times was acquitted on spying charges last week but jailed for three years on a fraud claim.

Ching, a Hong Kong-based China correspondent for The Straits Times in Singapore, was detained during a visit to the southern city of Guangzhou in April 2005 and stood trial earlier this month in a one-day proceeding. State media say he confessed to selling military secrets to rival Taiwan and setting up a spy network, but his supporters said he was innocent.

The official Xinhua News Agency announced the verdict and sentence but didn’t give any details of the case against Ching. His lawyer and court officials declined to comment.

China and Taiwan split in 1949 amid civil war and are believed to spy actively on each other.

China’s maximum penalty for espionage is death. An employee of the Chinese government’s social security fund was executed in April on charges of spying for Taiwan.

Journalists in Hong Kong have staged public protests demanding Ching’s release and complaining that he was targeted for political reasons. Press groups have sent petitions to Chinese President Hu Jintao saying the government was trying to stifle press freedoms.

His wife, Mary Lau, said he was set up by an unnamed intermediary who said he could help get tapes of interviews with the late Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang, who was deposed after the 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests.

Lau said Ching may have been targeted because of his ties to a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank, who had access to confidential discussions between China’s leaders.

In an open letter to Hu that was published in Hong Kong newspapers in June, Lau wrote that the researcher, Lu Jianhua, “frequently shared with Ching Cheong classified comments made by leaders, including yours and those of other leaders.”

The letter said Lu shared the information in hopes that Ching would be able to help him conduct interviews and prepare briefings commissioned by China’s leadership about Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Lau said Ching and Lu were “firmly on the side of Chinese people.”

Lu stood trial on Aug. 17 in a closed proceeding that lasted less than two hours, according to Frank Lu, a Hong Kong-based activist who runs a small news agency. It was not clear what charges he faced.

China is believed to be have more journalists behind bars than any other country. Most have been convicted of violating vague secrecy or security laws.

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