By: Elaine Kurtenbach, Associated Press Writer
(AP) In a rare challenge to China’s courts, some mainland legal experts and journalists are publicly appealing for a retrial of two newspaper editors jailed on corruption charges.
A court in the southern business capital of Guangzhou sentenced Yu Huafeng, former general manager of the Southern Metropolitan Daily, one of China’s most ambitious commercial newspapers, to 12 years for embezzlement last month. Former editor-in-chief Li Minying, also an executive of the paper’s parent company, got 11 years for taking bribes.
The convictions, which came amid a flurry of corruption cases among state media in the city, have raised an outcry among journalists and legal scholars, some of whom have launched an online petition calling for a retrial.
Several have posted appeals against the convictions on the Web site of the Open Constitution Initiative Social Research Center, a private legal advocacy group based in Beijing.
“They’re certainly innocent. I can’t see any reason why this sentence was given,” Xu Zhiyong, the defense lawyer for Yu and Li, told The Associated Press. “Yu couldn’t have been found guilty based on the evidence shown so far.”
In signed letters posted on the Web site, the legal experts argued that in convicting Yu and Li, the court violated government pledges to protect private property rights. An explicit guarantee of those rights was codified with a constitutional amendment approved by the national legislature last month.
Newspapers in Guangzhou have led reforms in China’s once-drab state media aimed at making the communist-controlled publications financially self-supporting.
The Metropolitan Daily is one of China’s most daring and financially successful newspapers, known for its aggressive reporting on corruption and social issues. It gained fame abroad in December when it broke the news of China’s first new SARS case of the season before Beijing reported it to the World Health Organization.
According to reports in the state media, Yu, its former general manager, was convicted of helping to embezzle $70,000 from the newspaper. Li, the former editor-in-chief, was convicted of taking bribes totaling $117,000.
Cheng Yizhong, the former chief editor of the newspaper and of a new publication, the Beijing News, was arrested late last month, also on graft charges.
Supporters contend that the charges against Yu and Li were ill-founded because the money they allegedly received was actually bonus payments.
A copy of Yu’s March 26 appeal, posted on the research center’s Web site, argues the same point and contends his innocence. “The appellant appeals to the court to clarify the situation and render a just verdict,” it says.
The international journalists’ advocacy group Reporters Without Borders has condemned the cases as a “plot” by the authorities to intimidate reporters working in China’s entirely state-controlled media.
The Metropolitan Daily’s current editor-in-chief was questioned by prosecutors in January, raising suggestions that it was being punished for embarrassing communist officials. Hong Kong news reports said the questioning was about corruption. The editor wouldn’t comment.
Executives at other state-run newspapers and television stations in Guangzhou have been charged with embezzlement and other offenses over the past year.
A former editor-in-chief of the Guangzhou Daily, one of China’s biggest newspapers, was sentenced in March to four years in prison on charges that she took bribes and kickbacks.