(New York) - The conviction of veteran human rights activist Huang Qi on state secrets charges on November 23, 2009, demonstrates the Chinese government's intent to use the judicial apparatus to crush whistleblowers without regard to minimum standards of fairness, Human Rights Watch said today.

A court in Chengdu in Sichuan province sentenced Huang to three years imprisonment for "possession of state secrets" without any public disclosure of the evidence against him or what secrets he had allegedly possessed following his investigation of the collapse of schools in Sichuan's earthquake zone.

"Huang Qi's conviction demonstrates the depth and breadth of the Chinese government's hostility towards freedom of expression," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "The Chinese government's willingness to use ambiguous state secrets laws to silence free speech rights embodied in the constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights highlights its dangerous lack of rule of law."

Huang Qi's conviction followed a closed trial in Chengdu on August 5, 2009. Huang is a veteran activist and founder of http://www.64tianwang.com, a website dedicated to publicizing human rights abuses across China. Police detained Huang Qi on June 10, 2008, in the Sichuan city of Chengdu and formally charged him with "possession of state secrets" on July 18, 2008. Those charges stem from Huang's investigation into allegations that shoddy construction contributed to the collapse of schools in the Sichuan earthquake zone in May 2008. Huang's family has reported that his health has markedly deteriorated in detention, that he has two tumors growing on his chest and stomach, and is suffering from headaches and heart troubles.

The Chinese government has yet to sentence Tan Zuoren, a literary editor and environmental activist tried in Chengdu on August 12, 2009, on charges of "subversion" related to his compilation of a list of children killed in the Sichuan earthquake. Tan, who faces a prison term of up to five years, has also reportedly suffered serious health problems while in detention.

Human Rights Watch said that China's state secrets law defines "secrets" expansively, allows officials to arbitrarily block defendants from access to their lawyers during the investigation phase, and bars the public from access to even non-classified parts of state secrets trials, all in violation of international human rights. Penalties for state secrets convictions range from a minimum five-year prison term to the death penalty.

In June 2009, China's National People's Congress approved a draft revision on the Law on Guarding State Secrets which focuses mainly on securing confidential information stored on computers or transmitted via the internet and leaves intact the law's broad criteria for classifying state secrets.

"Until the Chinese government provides clear and specific definitions of what actually constitutes a state secret, the Law on Guarding State Secrets remains a distinct threat to anyone in China whose views or activities the government wants to silence," Richardson said.

Human Rights Watch called on the United States and the European Union to publicly urge the Chinese government to dismiss charges against Huang and immediately release him. The US should use Huang's case as an opportunity to remind the Chinese government of its commitment to "promoting and protecting human rights consistent with international human rights instruments," in the U.S. China Joint Statement released on November 17, 2009. The two countries issued the Joint Statement during US President Barack Obama's recent state visit to China.

The European Union should raise Huang's case along with that of Tan Zuoren and other jailed rights activists at the upcoming summit China and the European Union will hold in Nanjing on Nov. 30, 2009.

"Foreign investors, representative governments and international business federations should find common cause in urging the Chinese government to narrow its definition of state secrets and demand an end to the routine violation of international due process standards for all suspects in state secrets cases," Richardson said.

Background: Recent State Secrets Detentions

Recent cases in which the Chinese government has deployed state secrets laws to silence criticism include that of Lin Dagang, a 70-year-old petitioner, who was sentenced to a two-year prison term on state secrets charges by a court in Zhejiang province on November 6, 2009. The evidence against Lin consisted of a document he downloaded from the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development public website in 2007 which detailed "proper handling" of petitioning cases. Petitioning is a legal activity which allows Chinese citizens to directly seek legal redress from government agencies for problems including illegal land seizure, official corruption, and police brutality.

China has also detained foreigners on state secrets charges in matters concerning economic research. On November 19, 2009, the Associated Press revealed that the Chinese government had detained a US geologist, Xue Feng, since November 20, 2007, on state secrets charges in relation to Xue's participation in the sale of a detailed computer database about China's petroleum industry. Xue has alleged to US consular officials in China that he has suffered torture at the hands of his jailors including beatings and the application of lit cigarettes to his arm.

On July 5, 2009, state security agents in Shanghai arrested four of the Shanghai-based staff of the Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, including Australian national Stern Hu, on state secrets law charges in relation to their alleged acquisition of confidential documents during negotiations for the supply of iron ore to Chinese state-owned firms. Chinese prosecutors downgraded those charges to on charges of infringing trade secrets and bribery on August 11, 2009, without explanation.