In a surprise concession, China on Friday dropped a case against New York Times researcher Zhao Yan that was threatening to overshadow Chinese President Hu Jintao’s upcoming visit to the United States.
Zhao’s attorney, Mo Shaoping, also said he expected him to be released within days after authorities dropped the charge of revealing state secrets, as well as a lesser fraud charge.
Mo said the Beijing Second Intermediate Court told him that prosecutors “applied to withdraw the charges and the Beijing court agreed”.
“In effect, this means that only if new evidence or facts come up can prosecutors revive these charges and I’m confident that’s not going to happen,” Mo said.
The lawyer said it was unclear whether Zhao, who worked for the newspaper before his arrest in September 2004, would be sent abroad after his release or if other conditions would apply.
Zhao faced 10 years in jail after security officials charged him with telling the newspaper details of a rivalry between retired Communist Party leader, Jiang Zemin, and his successor, Hu. In September 2004, the New York Times reported that Jiang had offered to resign as chairman of the Central Military Commission, his sole remaining official post.
Before starting work for the Times in 2004, Zhao established a reputation as a campaigning journalist who focused on rural corruption and discontent.
“One reason for his release was that the accusations were simply unsustainable. But more important was pressure from the United States government, especially with Hu Jintao going there,” said Yu Meisun, a friend of Zhao who was himself jailed on national security charges years ago.
The prosecutors told the court they wanted to conduct additional investigations on the fraud charge, but Mo said that claim was a face-saving way of releasing Zhao.
Renewing the charges was “impossible” given the prosecutors’ dramatic backdown, but the possibility of further investigations could be used to place conditions on Zhao’s movements after release, he said.
Hu is expected to make his first formal visit as president to the United States in April. His previous trip to Washington was cancelled due to Hurricane Katrina, although he visited the United Nations in New York.
China often times the release of dissidents or other human rights activists to coincide with visits by important leaders to the United States, or a U.S. president to Beijing. President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other U.S. officials had raised Zhao’s arrest during meetings with Chinese officials.
The U.S. ambassador to China, Clark Randt, welcomed the court’s decision and looked forward to Zhao’s release.
On Wednesday, a Tibetan nun jailed for 15 years was allowed to leave for the United States for medical treatment.
In the run-up to Hu’s visit, China has released early at least three political prisoners — a journalist jailed for throwing paint at a portrait of Mao Zedong during the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests, another journalist convicted of revealing state secrets after exposing corruption in his home province and a labor activist.