Chinese journalist sentenced to four years

New York, May 13, 2008—Qi Chonghuai, a journalist in China’s Shandong province who had written critically about local officials, was sentenced today to four years in prison for fraud and extortion in a trial that lasted 12 hours, according to his wife and lawyers.

Access to the trial was limited, and reporters were not allowed to attend. It began at 9 a.m. and continued until 9:30 p.m., when the sentence was announced, according to Qi’s wife, Jiao Xia, and his defense lawyers, Li Xiongbing and Li Chunfu. Qi denied the charges.

Qi said two police officers hit his head against the floor during a break in the trial, Li told CPJ by phone from Tengzhou after emerging from court. Qi reported being beaten while in prison in August 2007.

“We condemn Qi Chonghuai’s sentence and the brutal treatment he has received throughout his detention,” said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz. “This case, coming less than three months before the Olympics, illustrates the government’s failure to institute the freedom of the press promised when the Games were awarded to China in 2001.”

Qi, a journalist for 13 years for several online and print publications, was detained on June 25, 2007, in his home in Jinan, capital of China’s eastern Shandong province, by police from the nearby city of Tengzhou.

Qi and a friend, Ma Shiping, wrote a June 8, 2007, article accusing a low-level Tengzhou official of beating a local woman for arriving late to work. The article was published on the Web site of the U.S.-based Falun Gong-affiliated Epoch Times, according to a written report provided to CPJ by Li. Qi and Ma also posted photographs of a luxurious Tengzhou government building on the anti-corruption Web forum of the government-run Xinhua News Agency on June 14. Officials questioned Qi about the article and the photographs before his arrest on June 25, according to Li.

Qi was charged with extortion on August 2, the last day within the statute of limitations set by China’s penal code. The case was further delayed when police failed to provide enough evidence to bring Qi to trial, Li said. In February 2008, Li protested his client’s prolonged detention, but Qi was denied bail.

Ma Shiping was detained on June 16, 2007, and remains in prison. The status of his case has not been publicly reported, although Li and Jiao told CPJ he had been given a shorter sentence on the same charges. Ma’s lawyer has not returned phone calls, and CPJ could not confirm the length of the sentence.

Qi was accused of taking thousands of yuan from local government officials during the course of reporting several stories, Li said. The people from whom Qi is accused of extorting money are all local officials threatened by his investigative reporting, Li said. “Qi Chonghuai’s punishment is a blow for press freedom,” he told CPJ.

Qi’s wife, Jiao, was distressed when she described the trial to CPJ by telephone from Tengzhou. “I just want him to have a fair process,” she said of her husband. The couple have two children.

At least 26 journalists are imprisoned for their work in China, according to CPJ research. China’s failure to meet its Olympic press freedom commitments are outlined in the CPJ report, Falling Short.