Beijing: An American geologist detained and tortured by China`s state security agents over an oil industry database was jailed for eight years on Monday in a troubling example of China`s rough justice system and the way the US government handles cases against its citizens.
Beijing`s No 1 Intermediate People`s Court convicted Xue Feng of collecting intelligence and illegally providing state secrets and immediately sentenced him.
Xue`s lawyer Tong Wei described the sentence as "very heavy", just short of the maximum 10 years, and said he would confer with Xue over whether to appeal. Xue was also fined CNY 200,000 (USD 30,000).
The US Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, witnessed the sentencing in a show of high-level US government concern about the case. Afterward, the US embassy released a statement saying it was dismayed and urged China to grant Xue "humanitarian release and immediately deport him”.
For Xue, the verdict comes more than six months since the last court hearing and two and a half years after he was detained — a protracted prosecution and pre-trial detention that Chinese officials never explained.
Born in China and trained at the University of Chicago, Xue ran afoul of the authorities for arranging the sale of a detailed commercial database on China`s oil industry to IHS Energy, the energy consulting firm he worked for that is now known as IHS Inc and based in Colorado.
Sentenced along with Xue were three Chinese nationals convicted of being accomplices. Li Yongbo, a manager at Beijing Licheng Zhongyou Oil Technology Development Co, was sentenced to eight years and fined CNY 200,000 (USD 30,000) while Chen Mengjin and Li Dongxu, who worked for research institutes affiliated with state-owned PetroChina Co were each given two-and-a-half-year sentences and fined CNY 50,000 (USD 7,500).
The case has been seen as a troubling complex of the pitfalls of Chinese justice, especially for successful native Chinese who go abroad for education and work, acquire foreign citizenship and then return to China for work.
"This is a very harsh sentence. It`s a very sad day for justice in China," said John Kamm, an American human rights campaigner whom the State Department turned to for help last year to lobby for Xue`s release. "It`s a huge disappointment and will send very real shivers up the spines of businesses that do business in China." he said.
Xue`s case came to trial just as another China-born foreign national, Australian Stern Hu, was detained amid tense negotiations on iron ore sales between his employer, global mining colossus Rio Tinto, and Chinese state companies.
Both Xue and Hu were charged on vague state secrets charges. But unlike Xue, Hu`s arrest received immediate publicity from the Australian government and media. He is not known to have been mistreated and was brought to trial quickly, sentenced in March to 10 years for bribery and infringing trade secrets.
By contrast, Xue languished in detention. His disappearance in 2007 and arrest did not become public for two years until reported by The Associated Press last November. During the early weeks of his detention, state security agents tortured Xue, stubbing lit cigarettes into his arms and hitting him on the head with an ashtray.
Later allowed visits by US consular officers, Xue told them he wanted his case made public. However, his wife, who lives in Texas, disagreed, believing that quiet lobbying might be more effective and fearing that the publicity would trouble their two children and possibly jeopardise her relatives still living in China. Amid their disagreement, the US State Department pursued back-channel diplomacy.
Meanwhile, the case was batted between the court and prosecutors. All told, he appeared three times in court before Monday`s hearing, the first in July a year ago and the last in December. The court then repeatedly postponed sentencing. Legal experts said the delays in issuing a verdict exceeded legal time limits; Xue`s lawyer said a decision should have come in March at the latest.