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China jails outspoken journalist, 71, for 7 years

Chinese journalist Gao Yu pictured in Hong Kong on February 5, 2007  © AFP

Chinese journalist Gao Yu pictured in Hong Kong on February 5, 2007

BEIJING, Apr 17 – A Chinese court on Friday convicted a 71-year-old journalist of leaking state secrets and jailed her for seven years, it said, in a case seen by rights groups as part of a crackdown on government critics.

Gao Yu — named one of the International Press Institute’s 50 “world press heroes” in 2000 — “illegally provided state secrets to foreigners”, Beijing’s No. 3 Intermediate People’s Court said on a verified social media account.

“We are very disappointed with this verdict,” said Shang Baojun, one of her lawyers, who argued in court that a “confession” from Gao had been extracted after threats were made against her son.

Gao is “the victim of vaguely worded and arbitrary state-secret laws that are used against activists as part of the authorities’ attack on freedom of expression”, said William Nee, a researcher for Britain-based Amnesty International.

Known for her outspoken support for democracy and press freedom, Gao went missing last April and resurfaced on China’s state broadcaster a month later admitting she had made a “mistake” — a statement used as evidence by prosecutors at her trial.

Shang said the “confession” was made after police made threats against the journalist’s son — who police had also detained.

He added that after the verdict was read out in court Gao stated in a “strong voice” that she would appeal, but was not allowed to make any further statement.

The court had denied the defence access to the documents used to convict Gao, he said. The septuagenarian suffers from high blood pressure and Shang said was “very worried” about her health.

Around 20 foreign journalists gathered outside the courthouse Friday but were shoved more than 100 metres (yards) away by police and security. One unidentified Chinese individual was seen being pushed into a police vehicle.

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China’s current President Xi Jinping has overseen a harsh crackdown against critics of the ruling Communist Party, with scores of journalists, lawyers and academics detained and dozens jailed.

The party tightly controls the courts, with more than 99 percent of defendants convicted and appeals rarely successful.

– ‘Blow to free expression’ –

China’s definition of “state secrets” is notoriously broad, taking in the number of people executed each year, information about pollution, and databases listing commercial companies.

Neither the court nor prosecutors have stated the grounds for the charge against Gao.

But reports said the prosecution’s case was connected to the 2013 leaking of an Communist Party communique — widely circulated in China — calling for a harsh crackdown on dissent and warning against Western-style democracy, media independence and criticism of the party’s historical record.

A consistent advocate for democracy and free speech, Gao was imprisoned following the government crackdown on student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Gao’s political writings saw her jailed for six years in the 1990s, also on a charge of “leaking state secrets”.

She was detained with dozens of other government critics in the lead-up to the Tiananmen crackdown’s 25th anniversary last year, and her one-day trial was conducted in secret last November.

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The US said last year it was “deeply concerned” by the criminal proceedings against her.

Gao’s arrest “was part of an effort to intimidate and silence journalists and activists” ahead of the anniversary, the US chapter of free speech group PEN International said in a statement.

The verdict was “another blow to free expression and press freedom in China”, it added.

Ahead of the ruling, France-based Reporters Without Borders said it would be a gauge of “how far the Chinese authorities are ready to go in order to suppress those who speak with an independent voice”.

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