BEIJING – A Chinese researcher for The New York Times was acquitted Friday on charges of revealing state secrets but convicted of fraud and sentenced to three years in prison, one of his lawyers said.
Zhao Yan, 44, was detained in September 2004. The government has not released details of the charges, but the case is believed to stem from a Times report on then-Chinese leader Jiang Zemin's plans to relinquish his post as head of the military.
The case came amid efforts by President Hu Jintao's government to tighten controls on Chinese media. Dozens of reporters have been jailed, often on charges of violating vague secrecy and security laws.
Zhao was acquitted of the secrets charge because the court concluded "prosecutors did not provide sufficient evidence" to support it, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
Zhao denies the fraud charges, said his chief lawyer, Mo Shaoping. Another defense lawyer, Guan Anping, said he didn't know whether Zhao would appeal the conviction, which was handed down by the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court.
The executive editor of The Times, Bill Keller, said in a statement: "If the verdict is what it appears to be, we welcome it as a vindication. We have always said that to the best of our knowledge, the only thing Zhao Yan committed is journalism."
Zhao's case was dismissed in March in an apparent effort to minimize strains with Washington before President Hu Jintao visited the United States the following month. The charges were later restored and Zhao stood trial in June.
Zhao's family has not been allowed to meet with him since he was detained two years ago, Mo said. Zhao's lawyers say his time in detention will count toward his three-year sentence.
Zhao could have been sentenced to up to 10 years in prison if he had been convicted of "disclosing state secrets to foreigners."
The court fined Zhao the equivalent of $250 on the fraud charge and ordered him to repay $2,500 that he was accused of obtaining fraudulently, Xinhua said.
Zhao was detained after The Times reported in 2004 that Jiang was preparing to step down from his last major post as chairman of the body that runs China's military. The ruling Communist Party treats such information as highly confidential.
Jerome Cohen, an American expert on Chinese law who advised The Times, said the case was a rare example of a Chinese court acquitting a defendant on such politically sensitive charges.
Cohen said the fraud charge appeared to have been added to justify holding Zhao after the legal period for investigating the secrets charge had expired.
"Now conviction on the fraud charge helps to 'save face' for the law enforcement agencies," said Cohen, a New York University law professor.
"But that conviction is subject to serious challenge concerning the evidence and the procedures in the case as well as the severity of the sentence for what was at most a minor transgression."
Zhao's lawyers have complained that authorities violated Chinese regulations by failing to release him after the case initially was dismissed.
Before joining the Times' Beijing bureau, Zhao was an investigative reporter for Chinese publications and wrote about complaints of official corruption and abuses in the countryside.