07/07/2010, 00.00
CHINA - USA
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Washington calls for the release of Xue Feng, arrested over "geological state secrets "

Xue, jailed since November 2007, was sentenced to eight years in prison. He sold his study on the Chinese oil industry. The U.S. government demands he be released "on humanitarian grounds", but Beijing says that it is an "internal affair of China". Xue complains of torture. The case risks triggering a diplomatic incident.

Beijing (AsiaNews / Agencies) - The U.S. is pushing for China to free the U.S. Geologist Xue Feng, sentenced to 8 years imprisonment for breach of state secrecy. Beijing insists that it is its "internal affair", but Washington has rallied expressing "doubts" about the Chinese justice and the conviction.

Xue, a Chinese-born U.S. citizen, has been in jail since November 2007 for having sold a database on China's oil industry to the American consulting firm His for which he worked. On 5 July he was sentenced to eight years in prison, despite strong appeals by Washington’s Ambassador Jon Huntsman who attended the trial and said he was "appalled" at the sentencing.

Yesterday U.S. State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, said in a press conference that "we remain extremely concerned about his rights to due process under Chinese law " adding "we call on China to grant Dr Xue humanitarian release and immediately deport him back to the United States”.

According to diplomatic sources the Xue case, as a U.S. citizen, was treated in person by President Barack Obama with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Xue and that diplomatic staff visited him in jail about 30 times.

The response from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang is stark: "This is an internal matter of China", which does not allow "foreign interference". "The case was decided by the Chinese judges, who judged in strict accordance with the law."

In a far reaching controversy, Toner said that "the protection of U.S. citizens abroad is our first priority," assuring that "we have followed and will continue to follow the case at the highest levels."

Xue has always defended himself from charges saying that the information he provided came from public databases accessible to everyone.

The charge of breach of state secrecy is among the most insidious in China, because any form of data can be classified as such in the final opinion of political authorities and it is not practically possible to provide evidence to the contrary. The Dui Hua Foundation, which defends human rights, said the data were classified as secret only after Xue had sold them.

In his meetings with diplomats, Xue showed them marks left from cigarette burns on his arms and said that he was tortured by guards during interrogation.

The Obama administration has been repeatedly accused by human rights groups of favouring trade relations with China at the expense of human rights. The story of Xue risks triggering a real tug of war, with neither side wanting to show themselves as submissive.  Newspapers have used the occasion to remind the U.S. government of the need for greater commitment to the many Chinese democracy activists in jail for defending human rights.

This case recalls that of Stern Hu, an Australian of Chinese origin and chief executive of leading mining company Rio Tinto.  In November 2009 he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for corruption and espionage for giving money to Chinese officials to have confidential information on the price Beijing was willing to pay for iron ore (China is the biggest consumer of steel, and Rio Tinto and Chinese state firms held complex negotiations to determine the price of iron). His trial attracted wide protests from Australia, including for violations of rights of defence: the media reported that even "corrupt" Chinese officials were denied appearance as witnesses in the trial, for unexplained reasons.
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