China expected to free New York Times reporter soon

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BEIJING, Sep 14 (Reuters) A Chinese journalist jailed while working for the New York Times expects to be freed at the weekend, his family and a lawyer said, ending a controversial prison term that highlighted the country's tough media controls.

Zhao Yan, who reported on citizens' rights and official abuses, was given three years' jail for fraud in August 2006 -- a charge he denied.

He was detained in 2004 on accusations that included leaking state secrets after the Times reported that former president Jiang Zemin was likely to give up his post as chairman of the Central Military Commission, which he did shortly afterwards.

Zhao was accused of telling the newspaper about claims of rivalry between Jiang and his successor Hu Jintao. The Times has said that the charge was groundless.

Zhao's sister, Zhao Kun, told Reuters today she had spoken to a prison official and expected her brother's release tomorrow. Other sources have calculated he may come out of the Beijing jail gates on Sunday.

''He's in good spirits, and he's been getting better all the time,'' she said. ''But the first thing he has to do after he gets out is have a physical check-up. We need to be sure he's okay.'' Guan Anping, a lawyer who defended Zhao Yan in his trial last year, said he did not believe there could be unusual restrictions on Zhao's travel within China after his release -- always a possibility in this one-party state.

Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based group that campaigns against media restrictions, said Zhao's activities should not be curtailed.

''Zhao should have all his rights restored, including the right to work as a journalist,'' the group said in an emailed statement.

China holds 35 journalists and 51 cyberdissidents in prison ''just for exercising their right to inform'', the group said.

RIGHTS CAMPAIGN Zhao, an ex-policeman with the gruff twang of a northeast China native, joined the Times' Beijing office in 2004, after working as a investigative journalist for Chinese publications, mixing exposes of corruption and rural suffering with rights advocacy.

His case became the focus of intense campaigning by international human rights groups who said he was a victim of the ruling Communist Party's capricious use of secrecy laws to stifle news. Senior US diplomats also urged his release.

That pressure may have encouraged a Beijing court to unexpectedly reject the state secrets charge against Zhao, which would have attracted a sentence of 10 years or longer.

The court did find Zhao guilty of fraud, saying that in 2001 he took 2660 dollars from a village official on the unfulfilled promise of helping him avoid ''labour re-education'' -- a form of imprisonment.

The Times has made no statement about Zhao's possible release.

His sister said she was unsure of what Zhao planned to do after his release.

''I know one of the first things he has to do is go back to Harbin (his home city) for our sister's wedding. We've been waiting three years for him,'' she said.

REUTERS SKB RAI0922

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