Zhao, who was formally arrested in October 2004 under suspicion of leaking state secrets, is now accused of fraud, police informed his lawyer Mo Shaoping in April. The new accusation allows authorities to set back the clock on the legal investigation period for Zhao’s case and to continue detaining him without trial. Authorities have provided neither an explanation nor evidence to support their charge.
It is unclear whether the new charge means that authorities will drop the “state secrets” allegations against Zhao, which has denied him access to a lawyer and his family since his imprisonment in Shanghai on September 17, 2004.
Authorities never clarified the specific state secrets that Zhao was initially accused of leaking. Zhao’s associates have speculated that Chinese authorities may have tried to link him to a September 7, 2004, article in The New York Times correctly predicting Jiang Zemin’s retirement from his post on the Central Military Commission. His colleagues at the Times have repeatedly denied that Zhao provided any state secrets to the newspaper.
Before joining the Times, Zhao was a well-known investigative journalist who reported on farmers’ rights issues for the Beijing-based Zhongguo Gaige (China Reform) magazine. He had been the frequent target of local police harassment and interrogation for his stories, which included reporting on a local official’s alleged misappropriation of compensation for thousands of people displaced by the Taolinkou reservoir in Hebei Province.
“This unfounded new accusation against Zhao appears to be nothing more than a pretext for keeping the journalist in jail without trial, which violates international law and has a chilling effect on reporting within China,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “After eight months, authorities have failed to produce any evidence that Zhao has committed a crime. They should release him immediately and without condition.”
China was the leading jailer of journalists for the sixth consecutive year in 2004. Journalists currently imprisoned include senior Straits Times reporter Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong-based journalist who was accused of espionage yesterday by Chinese authorities.