HONG KONG (AFP) — Hong Kong reporter Ching Cheong has been freed on parole after spending nearly three years in jail in China on spying charges, as pressure grows for the mainland to loosen its media controls.
But amid celebrations for his release, China handed cyber-dissident Lu Gengsong a four-year jail term for "inciting subversion of state power."
Ching, who is reportedly in poor health, eluded journalists waiting for him here but released a statement thanking the Chinese government for granting him parole.
"I am very happy that I was able to return to Hong Kong and reunite with my family before the Chinese New Year. Also that all my friends do not have to be concerned about me," he said in a handwritten statement released by the Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA).
"I am very grateful for (the) Chinese government's decision to give me parole. I am also grateful for all the people in the past two years for the time and spirit they contributed for my early return."
Ching also thanked Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang, his employer, The Straits Times in Singapore, and media who had supported his campaign.
The HKJA also released pictures of Ching with his wife, Mary Lau, and his sister. Lau has been a tireless campaigner for her husband's freedom.
Ching, 58, chief China correspondent for Singapore's The Straits Times, was arrested in April 2005 and accused of spying for Taiwan.
The following year he was sentenced to five years in jail following a one-day, closed-door trial. An appeal was later dismissed and he has always maintained his innocence.
Ching's newspaper said it was "delighted" by the news.
"We are very happy that he will be reunited with his wife and family for Chinese New Year. We look forward to meeting him as soon as possible," said a spokesman for Singapore Press Holdings, which publishes The Straits Times.
Warren Fernandez, a deputy editor at The Straits Times, said the authorities had called Ching's wife Tuesday morning to say he was being freed. He added that he hoped Ching would be able to resume his work as correspondent.
Lau had been campaigning for her husband's release on medical grounds, and had recently appealed for the support of Tsang.
"I wish him well. I'm very happy for him to come home. I hope his family will be very happy together celebrating Lunar New Year," Tsang said.
Taiwan, where Ching was a correspondent, welcomed his release and urged Beijing to honour the pledges it made when applying to host the Olympics to improve human rights and freedom of the press.
In its original verdict, a Beijing court said Ching passed on information, some of it top secret, to two people from a Taiwanese foundation who were in fact deputies of an intelligence agency.
Ching's case has attracted international attention, highlighting fears China is cracking down on foreign and domestic journalists in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Bob Deitz, Asia coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said Ching's release was "wonderful news," that was "soured" by reports of Lu's sentencing.
"We hope that in this coming year in which China will host the Olympic Games, that the government will grant the same freedom to Lu and the 28 other journalists who still remain behind bars," Deitz said.
Writer and cyber-dissident Lu was given four years in jail by the Intermediate People's Court in the east Chinese city of Huangzhou.
His lawyer vowed to appeal the verdict.
Lu, a 51-year-old freelance writer who was formally arrested in September, has published extensively on graft, including the book "Corrupted Officials in China," which appeared in Hong Kong in 2000.
He is also known for disclosing a large number of illegal eviction cases, supporters said.
Estimates vary, but Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said in a report last August that at least 30 journalists and 50 cyber-dissidents were being detained in China for work that angered Chinese authorities.
In September, Chinese authorities freed New York Times researcher Zhao Yan after he was cleared of divulging state secrets.
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