BEIJING – A Chinese researcher for The New York Times pleaded not guilty Friday to charges of leaking state secrets in a case that rights activists say underscores Beijing's continued rejection of press freedom.
The closed-door trial for Zhao Yan, 44, who has been detained for 22 months, ended Friday after one day with no verdict, one of his lawyers, Mo Shaoping, said.
Zhao's other attorney, Guan Anping, said his client pleaded not guilty. He said he could not discuss the charges or the evidence produced in court because the information was classified.
The lawyers sought to have Zhao released on bail, but the court rejected the application, Guan said.
It was not immediately clear when there would be a verdict, the lawyers said. Zhao faces a prison term of 10 years if convicted of disclosing state secrets.
Zhao, an investigative reporter for several Chinese publications before joining the Times as a researcher, was detained in 2004 after the newspaper reported on Chinese leader Jiang Zemin's plans to relinquish his post as head of the military.
China is believed to be the world's leading jailer of journalists, with at least 42 behind bars, many on charges of violating vague security or subversion laws. The government has not released details of the case against Zhao.
"We've seen state secrets charges used very often on people that the Chinese government want to silence," said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.
He said China's state secrecy laws were out of step with minimum international standards in that they were vaguely defined and broadly encompassing.
Jerome Cohen, a New York University law professor, said China wants to make an example of Zhao.
"They're trying to make a vehicle of his case to show journalists and others that they are at their peril if they try to report in a way that's normal in most countries," said Cohen, who was in Beijing as a legal adviser to the Times.
"This is not a way that a major country that's about to hold the Olympics should act," Cohen said.
Zhao's case was dismissed in March ahead of a visit by President Hu Jintao to Washington in an apparent effort to help smooth U.S.-Chinese relations. But Zhao wasn't released, and prosecutors announced a new investigation within days.
"Under China's constitution, people are supposed to enjoy freedom of speech, but this has never been clearly defined," said Li Datong, a former editor of Freezing Point, a weekly supplement in the ruling Communist Party's China Youth Daily newspaper.
Li was removed from his post in February after printing an article questioning the official approach to history.
"The vagueness (of security laws) gives some officials a lot of room to maneuver and this is a situation that should not be allowed to continue," said Li, who still works for the China Youth Daily but has become a surprisingly vocal critic of China's press controls.
On Thursday, the New York-based press rights group, the Committee to Protect Journalists, issued a statement calling for Zhao's release. Another New York-based group, Human Rights in China, issued a similar statement, decrying Zhao's long detention without trial as unlawful.