HONG KONG—Authorities in the Chinese capital have handed an eight-year prison sentence to a Chinese-American scientist for trafficking in state secrets after he sold information that he said was commercially available.
Geologist Xue Feng, a naturalized U.S. citizen who settled in Houston, Texas, was tried by the Beijing No.1 Intermediate Court a year ago, but only sentenced Monday.
A U.S. State Department spokesman said Washington is "disturbed" by Xue's sentence.
"We call on China to grant Dr. Xue humanitarian release and immediately deport him back to the United States," the spokesman said.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, Susan Stevenson, said Washington would continue to raise concerns over Xue's treatment with Beijing.
"The U.S. government has concerns over Dr. Xue’s well-being," Stevenson said. "We remain concerned with his rights to due process under Chinese law."
"The protection of U.S. citizens overseas is our highest priority," she added. "We will continue to visit him and discuss his case with the Chinese government."
'Trafficking state secrets'
Xue was first detained in November 2007, charged with "attempting to acquire and traffic in state secrets," after he sold a database of information about China's oil industry to a Colorado-based consulting firm.
At the time the alleged offense took place, Xue was working for the engineering and consulting company IHS.
Both he and the company have said that they believed the database was commercially available at the time of the sale, and was only later designated a state secret by the authorities.
U.S.-based rights group Duihua Foundation said the sentence was deeply unfair.
"A terrible injustice has been done to Dr. Xue and his family, who for more than two-and-a-half years have been waiting for a court to decide this man's fate," Duihua founder John Kamm said in a statement Monday.
"I can only hope that the Beijing High People's Court will reconsider the heavy sentence that has been imposed and do so in a far more timely manner so that this man, who suffers from a serious heart condition, can return home to his family and doctors as soon as possible," Kamm said.
Xue's trial opened more than a year ago and came more than a year after his formal arrest on April 11, 2008. Sentencing has been repeatedly delayed over the past year.
Xue's case was raised by U.S. President Barack Obama with his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, during Obama's China tour last November.
The geologist has also been visited by top U.S. diplomats in China.
U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman and other embassy officials were present in the courtroom when the verdict was announced.
"I have visited Xue Feng several times during the past half year," Huntsman said in a statement following the sentencing.
"He has stayed strong during this difficult time. My thoughts are with him and his family, with whom I hope he will be reunited soon."
Victim of 'arbitrary laws'
Duihua's Joshua Rosenzweig said he believes Xue had been a victim of vague and arbitrary state secrets laws.
"The trial process lasted over a year, which under Chinese law is very unusual, and probably has violated legal regulations," he said.
"In the first several weeks of his arrest, Chinese security personnel refused his request to contact the U.S. embassy. During that time, neither his family nor his employer knew his whereabouts," Rosenzweig said.
He said the case is similar to that of Chinese journalist Shi Tao, jailed for divulging state secrets after he published online a notice of a meeting.
Guangzhou-based lawyer Tang Jingling said there are many gray areas in China's state secrets law.
"The authorities have the power to decide what is a state secret or not according to their own will at any given time," Tang said.
He said Shanghai-based lawyer Zheng Enchong was accused of leaking state secrets, but the so-called “secret” was information about demonstrations by local workers petitioning the government for their grievances.
"How can a street rally become a state secret?" Tang said. "This kind of joke can only happen in China."
He said the authorities often use state secrets legislation as an excuse to crack down on activities they do not like.
"The authorities detained several young activists years ago on charges of leaking state secrets," Tang said.
"But the charges were not used in convicting and sentencing them later on. This was because if they frequently use the charges and invoke the mechanism to define state secrets, it would look ridiculous,” Tang said.
Xue Feng was born in the central Chinese city of Xian, and earned his Ph.D. in Geology from the University of Chicago in the 1990s.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Gao Shan. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated by Ping Chen. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.