China frees jailed reporter

Times Staff Writer

A Hong Kong-based reporter sentenced by Beijing to five years in jail on espionage charges was released Monday three years ahead of schedule, according to local media.

Ching Cheong will be allowed to return home for Chinese New Year, broadcaster RTHK reported. His wife, who fought hard for his release in part on the grounds of his failing health, was not immediately available for comment.

Ching, a correspondent for the Straits Times in Singapore, was detained in the Chinese city of Guangzhou in 2005 and sentenced in 2006 to five years in prison. He was charged with spying for Taiwan.

China has a history of applying vague espionage and sedition charges against free-speech advocates and journalists with views it does not like.

Media groups were somewhat reluctant to champion Ching's case as a straight instance of media repression, however. The case was complicated by indications Ching had gone beyond traditional journalism to take an advocacy role for improved ties between China and Taiwan. The two have been adversaries since separating in 1949 during a civil war. Beijing claims the island remains part of its territory.

Ching has been one of at least 29 journalists detained by China, which jails more reporters than any other country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a media advocacy group.

Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch, said the early release suggests Beijing is trying to bolster support for pro-mainland politicians in Hong Kong. The case has been closely watched in Hong Kong, where citizens monitor China's pledge to grant the former British colony relative autonomy.

"His arrest was unjustified, his trial arbitrary and his release discretionary," Bequelin said. "We welcome his release, but his case underscores how political considerations trump the rule of law."

Despite growing attention on China's human rights situation in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China has if anything tightened its grip, activists said.

"Obviously any release is 100% important for the person involved, but this isn't any indication of a broader trend," said Robin Munro, a labor rights activist. "The authorities are busy cracking down on everything that moves."

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