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(New York) - The Chinese government must ensure an open and fair trial for Zhao Yan, Human Rights Watch said today. The trial of Zhao, the Chinese assistant at the New York Times Beijing bureau who has been accused of leaking state secrets and of lesser fraud charges, is expected to begin June 8.

Zhao was detained in September 2004 in connection with a New York Times article correctly predicting a reshuffle of top leadership positions in the Communist Party of China (CPC). Zhao, who has consistently denied the charges, has been in prison for almost 21 months without a hearing or an appearance before a judge. The prosecutors withdrew the charges against Zhao ahead of a visit by President Hu Jintao to Washington in April 2006, only to reinstate virtually identical charges two months later. Zhao’s lawyer, Mo Shaoping, has criticized the numerous time delays and procedural irregularities that have marked Zhao’s case.

“There have been multiple violations of due process in Zhao Yan’s case, and serious concerns that he may be the victim of politically motivated charges,” said Sophie Richardson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “His rights have been so severely curtailed that his trial amounts to a mockery of justice.”

China’s state secrets laws apply far beyond the scope of national security to include economic, social and political matters such as “secrets in national economic and social development,” and other matters “affecting social stability.” Since 1989, the agency in charge of enforcing the state secrets system, the State Secrets Bureau, has issued more than 100 regulations which define the scope of classification for all government ministries and state institutions. Some of these regulations are themselves classified as state secrets.

The state secrets laws and regulations drastically curtail the rights of defendants. All contact between the lawyer and his client is subject to the approval of the investigating authorities, and the defense can be denied access to the evidence. The trial can be conducted behind closed doors. There is no mechanism to challenge the State Secrets Bureau if it classifies a matter as a state secret, making the bureau’s authority absolute, and making it impossible for anyone to disprove charges of violating state secrets.

The bulk of the case against Zhao is reported to rest on a four-line memo that he wrote for the New York Times about rumors of political jockeying over military appointments. This memo was obtained surreptitiously by State Security investigators and subsequently certified as “Top Secret” (juemi) by the State Secrets Bureau. According to an interpretation by the Chinese Supreme People’s Courts, illegally providing a “top secret” matter overseas constitutes “especially serious circumstances,” for which the penalty ranges from a minimum of 10 years up to capital punishment.

“That Zhao Yan could be sentenced to a minimum of 10 years without a fair and open legal process shows how shallow China’s commitment to the rule of law is,” said Richardson. “If Chinese authorities are sufficiently confident in their charges against Zhao Yan to fully reinstate them, they should make them – and his trial – public.”

Chinese authorities have used state secrets charges to prosecute individuals for actions that are not criminal under any other laws. Hangzhou activist Tan Kai was tried in May 2005 for allegedly stealing state secrets after he attempted to register “Green Watch,” an environmental organization, last year. Shanghai lawyer Zheng Enchong, who was acting on behalf of forcibly evicted residents in Shanghai, was sentenced to three years in prison for providing an internal Xinhua news agency dispatch relating a labor protest to an overseas human rights organization.

Changsha journalist Shi Tao was jailed for 10 years under state secrets charges in April 2005 for passing on to overseas websites Chinese government instructions to media organizations on how to cover the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. Zhejiang house church leaders Liu Fenggang, Xu Yonghai and Zhang Shengqi were sentenced in 2004 under state secrets charges for documenting the destruction of house churches in the region.

The government has also alleged the necessity to protect state secrets to cover up potentially embarrassing incidents such as the break out of the 2004 SARS (Serious Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic or major industrial accidents. It was not until 2005 that natural disasters were no longer considered state secrets.

“State secrets have become the weapon of choice for prosecuting people like Zhao Yan that the Chinese authorities want silenced,” said Richardson. “Until the State Security Bureau explains what the ‘state secret’ was and Zhao is given an opportunity to challenge this, his trial will be little more than a farce.”

Background on Zhao Yan

Zhao Yan was born on March 14, 1962, and graduated from Heilongjiang University. After working briefly as a police officer in Harbin, he became a journalist and worked for a publication owned by the Legal Daily. In 2002, he joined China Reform, an official publication, rapidly earning a reputation for his aggressive exposés of rural issues and official corruption. Along with two other peasant advocates, lawyer Yu Meisun and constitutional scholar Li Boguang, Zhao also started to play an active role in advising rural residents displaced by a dam in Hebei Province and resettled in a village on the outskirts of Tangshan, Fujian Province.

The peasants claimed that the mayor of Tangshan had misappropriated the compensation owed to them and more than 10,000 signed a petition demanding his recall. In March 2004, Zhao left China Reform; the magazine was subsequently shut down by the government in December 2004, and his editor Chen Min was briefly detained at the time.

Zhao joined the New York Times Beijing bureau as a researcher in April 2004. Fujian police continued to investigate him in connection with his role in supporting the Tangshan petitioners. In June, Fujian provincial and municipal police officers raided Zhao’s family home in Harbin. His father, who was already ill, died shortly afterwards, an incident that Zhao blamed on the shock caused by the raid. In an interview with Radio Free Asia in July 2004, Zhao reported having been recently followed to Beijing by agents of the Fujian Provincial Police. They had also reportedly pressured peasant advocate Wu Zhongkai to expose the activities of Zhao and legal scholar Li Boguang, describing the two men as “criminals.”

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