US geologist sentenced to eight years in China

BEIJING — Rebuffing the American
government’s appeals for leniency, a Beijing court on Monday sentenced a
naturalised American citizen to eight years in prison on charges that his
purchase of a database on China’s oil industry broke state secrecy laws.

Xue Feng, a geologist, has spent more than
two and a half years in jail since his detention, and had complained to outsiders
seeking his release that his captors had tortured him by pressing lighted
cigarettes into his arms and hitting him with an ashtray.

American consular officials have visited
Mr. Xue nearly 30 times during his detention, and President Barack Obama raised
the case with President  Hu Jintao during
a state visit to Beijing last November. The American ambassador to China, Jon
M. Huntsman Jr., was in the Beijing courtroom when the sentence was handed down
on Monday.

“Now that the Chinese legal system has
ruled, I believe the time has come for Dr. Xue, who has already been detained
for two and a half years, to be released,” Mr. Huntsman said in a statement. “I
urge the Chinese authorities to take into account the long ordeal he has
suffered and in the spirit of justice allow him to be return home and be
reunited with his family.”

The statement said the United States
government was dismayed by the verdict and was concerned about both Mr. Xue’s
right to due process under Chinese law and his well-being while in prison.

The Dui Hua Foundation, a San
Francisco-based group that follows human rights issues in China, said that Mr.
Xue, 44, has a heart condition. Mr. Xue’s Beijing lawyer, Tong Wei, said in a
telephone interview that Mr. Xue was not seriously ill and was receiving
medical care.

Mr. Xue’s sentence, which some human rights
advocates called unusually harsh, appeared to underscore the Chinese
government’s acute sensitivity to any matters involving its hunt for natural
resources to fuel economic growth. In March, a Shanghai court sentenced Stern
Hu, an Australian executive with the mining firm Rio Tinto, to 10 years in
prison, in part on charges that he had stolen commercial secrets involving
China’s purchases of iron ore.

Both Mr. Hu and Mr. Xue were born in China,
then left and received citizenship abroad before returning as businessmen.

Mr. Xue was sentenced under a notably vague
state secrets law, used in the past to prosecute cases ranging from military
espionage to information leaks from state ministries. State security officials
detained Mr. Xue in November 2007 after he signed a purchase contract on behalf
of a Colorado-based energy consulting firm, IHS Energy, for a database on the
Chinese oil industry.

The nature of the database has not been made
public. Mr. Xue apparently came across the database during discussions with
Chinese friends and did not regard it as sensitive, a Hong Kong-based official
with the Dui Hua Foundation, Joshua Rosenzweig, said in a telephone interview
on Monday. Indeed, both the Dui Hua Foundation and Mr. Xue’s lawyer say the
Chinese government did not classify the information until after it had been
sold to IHS, now known as IHS Inc.

“This illustrates the extreme importance
with which China views its access to natural resources, especially things like
steel and oil. These are things China sees as vital to its economic growth,
which in turn is vital to maintaining stability,” Mr. Rosenzweig said. “It’s
clear that resource issues are seen as national security issues.”

Mr. Xue’s Chinese background and network of
Chinese acquaintances doubtless helped him gain access to information that
might elude ordinary foreigners, he said. But that same access placed him at
greater risk of crossing the murky borders of the state secrets law, he added,
and the government’s ownership of China’s oil industry raised the danger still

Although United States officials had been
involved in Mr. Xue’s case since his 2007 detention, it did not become publicly
known until last November. Mr. Xue’s family had sought to keep his arrest
secret, hoping that quiet negotiations with the Chinese government would aid
his release, but Mr. Xue abandoned that position after two years in jail.

His case has been marked by long delays.
Mr. Xue was not formally arrested until April 2008, five months after he was
detained, and Monday’s sentence was handed down nearly a year after his trial.

His lawyer, Mr. Wei, said he did not know
whether the sentence would be appealed. “I’ll consult my client first,” he said.