Zhao, a news researcher at Beijing bureau of The New York Times and a former investigative reporter for the Beijing-based China Reform magazine, was detained in Shanghai less than two weeks after The Times ran an article correctly predicting the retirement of President Jiang Zemin from his final leadership post.
Zhao was held under suspicion of “providing state secrets to foreigners,” a charge that denied him access to a lawyer for nine months after his initial detention, prolonged his pretrial detention, and cloaked his case in official secrecy. Leaked state security documents confirmed that Zhao was detained in connection with the September 7 article on Jiang’s retirement, but indicated that the sparse evidence against him comprised only a brief handwritten note taken through unknown means from the Beijing office of The Times. A fraud charge was added in April 2005. After a series of delays, Zhao was tried in June 2006 in closed proceedings in which he was not permitted to call defense witnesses.
On August 25, 2006, Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court convicted Zhao of fraud charges, but in a very rare move for criminal cases brought to trial in China, acquitted him of the more serious state secrets charges due to “insufficient evidence.” Zhao was sentenced to three years in prison.
The fraud charge stemmed from an accusation that Zhao took 20,000 yuan (US$2,500) from a local official with the promise of helping him get released from a work camp in 2001. Zhao was known as an aggressive investigative reporter and activist before joining The Times. Sources familiar with the situation told CPJ that the allegation against him was unsubstantiated.
Zhao’s detention fueled an international outcry, and it was raised with high-ranking U.S. officials in talks with Chinese counterparts. The state secrets’ charge against Zhao was briefly dropped ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s April 2006 visit to the White House, prompting premature speculation that he would soon be released from prison. But all charges were reinstated after Hu’s visit.
After his sentencing, Zhao’s lawyers petitioned for a fully open appeal hearing with a right to call defense witnesses, something denied him in the first trial. But authorities denied this request and rejected his appeal after reviewing it behind closed doors in November.