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China journalist, 71, to serve five years in jail: lawyer

November 26, 2015

China on Thursday reduced a 71-year-old Chinese journalist’s seven-year jail sentence for “leaking state secrets” by two years, her lawyer said following an appeal in a case condemned by free speech advocates.

Dozens of police officers blocked access to the Beijing high court which reduced Gao Yu’s seven-year term to five, her lawyer Mo Shaoping told AFP.

“We think she is innocent. The sentence is just lighter, it’s a slight improvement,” he added.

Gao has been in custody since May, when she was detained ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square killings and shown by state broadcaster CCTV making a “confession” under police detention, an increasingly regular spectacle in China.

State security prevented foreign journalists and about 10 diplomats from standing near the court Thursday and wrestled a woman to the ground who shouted slogans in support of Gao.

Mo cited the court as saying the reduction had been made on the grounds Gao had “expressed guilt” during her appeal hearing, held in secret, but referred to the admission as a “bargain”.

China’s Communist-controlled courts have a near-100 percent conviction rate, with most guilty verdicts based on alleged confessions extracted from suspects.

The veteran reporter has suffered heart problems during her detention, and Mo added there was a “possibility” she could be released on medical parole in the future.

Sophie Richardson, China director of US-based campaign group Human Rights Watch, described the sentence reduction as a “relief” on Twitter.

But she added that the court “should have thrown out the case entirely — no crime here”.

– Crackdown on dissent –

A former winner of UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Prize, Gao has been a consistent critic of the ruling Communist Party’s authoritarian policies.

A court convicted Gao in April of leaking a 2013 directive by the Communist Party named “Document Number 9” to a Hong Kong media outlet.

The document warned of the “dangers” of multiparty democracy, independent media, universal definitions of human rights and criticism of the party’s historical record, according to copies widely circulated online.

The appeal earlier this week came as China’s President Xi Jinping oversees a crackdown on dissent that has seen hundreds of lawyers, activists and academics detained in recent years, with dozens jailed.

China’s already close controls on the media have been further tightened, reporters say.

France-based Reporters Without Borders ranked China 176th out of 180 countries in its 2015 Press Freedom Index.

Gao’s jailing was condemned by human rights groups, while Washington called for her immediate release and the EU demanded Beijing review her trial.

Asked about protests over the conviction, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a regular briefing: “China’s justice departments dealt with the case and reached a decision in accordance with the law.”

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

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

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.