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U.S. Geologist Loses China Appeal on Secrets Charge

U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman
U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman speaking to the media outside the Beijing People's High Court. Photographer: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg

A Chinese court rejected an appeal by a U.S. geologist jailed for eight years in July for breaching state secrets by buying data on the nation’s oil industry, his lawyer said.

The Beijing High People’s Court “upheld the verdict” of Xue Feng, lawyer Tong Wei told reporters outside the court. The administration of President Barack Obama and members of Congress have pushed for China to release Xue.

U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who attended the hearing, said he was “extremely disappointed in the outcome,” though it wasn’t unexpected. Huntsman said he was concerned over Xue’s health.

“We ask the Chinese government to consider an immediate humanitarian release of Xue Feng, thereby allowing him to get back to his family and his way of life,” Huntsman told reporters after meeting with Xue following the decision. Xue was “surprisingly stoic and strong” following the verdict, Huntsman said.

On Jan. 31 Huntsman, 50, a former Republican governor of Utah, announced he was leaving his ambassador’s post at the end of April amid speculation that he will enter the 2012 U.S. presidential race.

Congressional Pressure

Republican lawmakers including Florida’s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the head of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, pushed President Hu Jintao to free Xue during Hu’s state visit to the U.S. last month. Ros-Lehtinen handed a letter to Hu which criticized Xue’s treatment.

“If he wants to be president, he better get Xue Feng released into his custody before Bill Clinton comes over there and gets it done,” Terry Sullivan, a presidential scholar at the University of North Carolina, said of Huntsman. “Now that would be presidential.”

The database that Xue bought and was planning to sell to a U.S. company contained detailed information on the state of the Chinese oil industry, AP reported. China’s three biggest oil companies are state-owned.

The case highlights China’s use of the law to protect economic information, and came after the jailing of four Rio Tinto Group executives strained relations with Australia. Groups including the U.S.-China Business Council have criticized China’s definition of state secrets as too broad. China said the case was handled according to the nation’s law and rejected criticism that the sentence was unfair.

Legal Changes

China in April passed legal changes aimed at making individuals, companies and organizations more responsible for protecting state secrets, according to amendments approved by legislators at the time.

State secrets include information that may damage the nation in fields ranging from defense and diplomacy to “national, economic and development projects” and technology. The government also has the power to label anything else a state secret, according to the amendments passed in April.

Three Chinese nationals were sentenced with Xue. Li Yongbo, a manager at Beijing Licheng Zhongyou Oil Technology Development Co., was sentenced to eight years and fined 200,000 yuan, AP reported, citing Xue’s lawyer Tong Wei. Chen Mengjin and Li Dongxu, who worked at a research institute affiliated with PetroChina Co., were each given 2 1/2 year sentences and fined 50,000 yuan, according to AP.

Former Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu, an Australian citizen, was detained in July 2009 with three colleagues. They were initially accused of stealing state secrets, with the accusations later reduced to bribery and infringing commercial secrets.

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