The New York Times has welcomed the release of one of its researchers who has spent three years in a Chinese prison.
Zhao Yan, who was originally arrested on charges of revealing state secrets and later convicted of fraud, was released on Saturday morning.
His detention in 2004 prompted an outcry by human rights and press freedom groups. The Chinese government never released details of the state secrets charge, but it was believed to stem from a Times report on then-leader Jiang Zemin’s plans to step down as head of the military.
Zhao was acquitted of that charge but later convicted of fraud.
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’s family and friends were waiting to greet him as he left a Beijing detention centre. He hugged his sister, daughter and others but said nothing to reporters. He later issued a statement thanking his family and the Times for their support.
“These three years I have missed my family very much, especially my maternal grandmother, who is now more than 100 years old,” the statement said. It said Zhao planned to make a longer statement later after spending time with friends and family.
The Times executive editor, Bill Keller, issued a statement welcoming Zhao’s release.
“We have said all along that Zhao Yan is an honourable, hardworking reporter whose only offence seems to have been practising journalism,” the statement said.
“It is our expectation that Zhao Yan, having served his full three-year term, will now be able to resume his life and return to his chosen profession without restrictions.”
Zhao, a veteran investigative reporter, went to work for the Times in 2004. Before that, he reported on official corruption and abuses in the countryside for Chinese media.
His arrest followed a Times report that Jiang was preparing to step down from his post as chairman of the Communist Party commission that controls China’s military. The ruling party releases few details of its decision-making and treats leaks as a serious offence.
Press freedom groups criticised the decision to detain Mr Zhao and the US State Department expressed concern about the implications for other Chinese reporters.
The state secrets case was dismissed in March 2006 in an apparent effort to ease strains with Washington ahead of a visit by Hu to the US. The charges were re-filed after Hu returned to China and Zhao was acquitted after a trial.
A Beijing court convicted him in August 2006 of taking GBP1,250 from a man in 2001 after promising to have the man’s 18-month sentence in a labour camp rescinded, according to state media.
Zhao denied taking the money.
His lawyer, Guan Anping, said last night that he might appeal to have the conviction expunged from Mr Zhao’s record.