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Amid jail releases, Chinese journalist's sentence extended

New York, June 23, 2011--Authorities in Shandong should overturn a second prison sentence handed down to freelance journalist Qi Chonghuai just days before the end of his term, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Two of three Chinese journalists scheduled for release this month are out of jail. Artist Ai Weiwei was unexpectedly freed from extrajudicial detention on Wednesday

Less than three weeks before the completion of his four-year prison term, a court in Shandong province sentenced Qi to a further eight years in jail, according to New York-based advocacy group Human Rights in China and Radio Free Asia. Qi's wife, Jiao Xia, told Radio Free Asia the charges were still in retaliation for Qi's reporting prior to his 2007 arrest, which exposed local corruption.

Human Rights in China, citing an online article by Qi's lawyer, Li Xiaoyuan, said the court sentenced him a second time on June 9 for his original charge of extortion and blackmail. They added a separate charge of stealing advertising revenue from a former employer, China Security Produce News. Li's article says local authorities informed Qi in May it had new evidence against him, prompting the latest trial--in which he felt Qi's guilt was already decided. "I felt we were just going through the motions," Li writes. Qi will serve a total 12 years.

"Qi Chonghuai's harsh new sentence underscores that Chinese the legal system is being abused to prevent reporting," said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator. "The release of some Chinese journalists does not change the fact that they should never have been behind bars, and could face harassment at home."

Other long-term prison terms besides Qi's conclude in China this month:

  • Freelance journalist and academic Xu Zerong was released from prison in Guangzhou today due to a two-year sentence reduction for good behavior, according to The Associated Press. Jailed in 2000 for leaking state secrets about China's role in the Korean War, he was the longest-serving Chinese journalist on CPJ's 2010 Imprisoned census.
  • Website manager Huang Qi returned home on June 17 after completing a three-year sentence for anti-state charges related to his reporting on damage caused by the collapse of government buildings in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, according to Agence France-Presse. 
  • Activist and online writer Hu Jia is scheduled for release on June 26. Police and security officials have severely restricted his wife, blogger Zeng Jinyan, during Hu's three and a half-year imprisonment in Beijing for inciting subversion.

Sentence reductions like Xu Zerong's are common in the Chinese penal system, although they are becoming rare for state security charges, according to AP, which quoted the Hong Kong-based Dui Hua Foundation. Huang Qi and Hu Jia completed their full terms, but risk joining dozens of writers, activists, and lawyers currently under residential surveillance. Security officials enforce domestic isolation on outspoken activists, restricting their movement, and disrupting communication with the outside world, according to CPJ research.

Ai, the artist and filmmaker unexpectedly released on bail Wednesday after nearly three months of illegal detention, told journalists that he was not allowed to speak freely, according to international news reports. The Foreign Ministry said he must stay in Beijing for one year and report to police on demand, according to AP. CPJ believes the artist's aggressive documentation of social injustice--including the imprisonment and disappearance of other activists--caused authorities to hold him incommunicado without charge while ostensibly investigating him for tax evasion. Ai's bail does not mean he has been charged with a crime, but that the investigation can continue for up to one year, according to China law expert Jerome Cohen on New York University's U.S. Asia Law Institute website.  

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