Concerning the release of New York Times journalist Zhao Yan on the completion of his three-year prison sentence, Human Rights in China (HRIC) regrets that he was not released three years earlier. Zhao Yan should have been released in September 2005, after the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, an international independent expert body, found his detention to be arbitrary because it violated his fundamental freedoms and also undermined his due process rights.
Zhao was detained in September 2004 in connection with a New York Times article that predicted the resignation of Jiang Zemin from his last major post as head of the military. Zhao was held in detention for more than 19 months without trial on suspicion of leaking state secrets to the newspaper.
On March 17, 2006, one month before Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to the United States, news stories circulated that charges against Zhao had been dropped and that he would soon be released from prison. However, on June 16, 2006, Zhao Yan went to trial for both "leaking state secrets" and fraud. On August 25, 2006, Zhao was sentenced to three years in prison for fraud, but was cleared of the state secrets charge. The trial failed to meet international standards of due process because it was held behind closed doors on the basis of the state secrets charge of which Zhao was later cleared. Zhao lodged an appeal against his sentence on September 4, 2006, but his appeal was denied on December 1, 2006, at a five-minute closed hearing at which Zhao was not allowed to testify, violating domestic due process protections.
Prior to joining the New York Times as a researcher in Beijing, Zhao Yan was a journalist who wrote extensively about rural issues and government corruption, and advocated for peasants' rights. Zhao's release on September 15 took into account the two years he served in detention preceding his trial.
"The state secrets charges undermined Zhao Yan's rights to procedural protections that would have otherwise applied," said HRIC's executive director, Sharon Hom. "Zhao Yan’s case demonstrates the way in which state secrets charges can be manipulated, and also how Chinese officials use trumped-up charges to silence unpopular views or reporting," said Hom. HRIC urges the Chinese government to release all other individuals whose detentions have been declared arbitrary by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, including journalist Shi Tao, labor activist Yao Fuxin, and democracy activist Hu Shigen.