A Chinese journalist, jailed while working for the New York Times, was released on Saturday, ending a controversial prison term that highlighted the country’s tough media controls.
Zhao Yan, looking noticeably thinner, was greeted by a small group of family and friends, including his daughter and sister. He did not make any public statements.
Zhao, who reported on citizens’ rights and official abuses, was sentenced to three years in prison for fraud in August 2006 — a charge he denied.
He was detained in 2004 on accusations that included leaking state secrets after the Times reported that former President Jiang Zemin was likely to give up his post as chairman of the Central Military Commission, which Jiang did shortly afterward.
Zhao was accused of telling the newspaper about claims of rivalry between Jiang and his successor, Hu Jintao. The Times has said the charge was groundless.
Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based group that campaigns against media restrictions, said Friday that Zhao should have all his rights restored, including the right to work as a journalist.
China holds 35 journalists and 51 cyberdissidents in prison ”just for exercising their right to inform,” according to the group.
Zhao, an ex-policeman with the gruff twang of a northeast China native, joined the Times’ Beijing office in 2004, after working as an investigative journalist for Chinese publications, mixing exposés of corruption and rural suffering with rights advocacy.
His case became the focus of intense campaigning by international human rights groups who said he was a victim of the ruling Communist Party’s capricious use of secrecy laws to stifle news. Senior U.S. diplomats also urged his release.
That pressure may have encouraged a Beijing court to unexpectedly reject the state secrets charge against Zhao, which would have attracted a sentence of 10 years or longer.
The court did find Zhao guilty of fraud, saying that he took 20,000 yuan, or around $2,660, from a village official in 2001 on the unfulfilled promise of helping the official avoid “labor re-education” — a form of imprisonment.
Zhao’s sister, Zhao Kun, said Friday that Zhao was in good spirits and was recovering from the ordeal.