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Journalist Ching Cheong released

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders is relieved that Hong-Kong based journalist Ching Cheong, a correspondent of Singapore's "Straits Times" newspaper, was freed on parole on 5 February 2008 from a prison in the southern city of Guangzhou where he was serving a five-year sentence on a spying charge. He arrived back in Hong Kong on 5 February. Arrested on 22 April 2005, he had just over two years of his sentence still to serve.

"Ching should never have been arrested and imprisoned," Reporters Without Borders said. "His release is very welcome, especially as it will allow him to celebrate the Chinese New Year with his family, but he is still not completely free. The Chinese government should continue down this road by releasing, before the start of the Olympic Games, all of the 32 journalists and 51 cyber-dissidents who are currently held."

The press freedom organisation added: "We pay tribute to the extraordinary efforts made by Ching's family, his friends of the Ching Cheong Concern Group and the journalistic community in Hong Kong, who always defended his innocence in the face of the Chinese government's unjust accusations."

Ching's release must not be allowed to divert attention from the plight of human rights activist Hu Jia, who has been held since 27 December 2007 on a charge of "inciting subversion of state authority," or from the four-year prison sentence passed on 4 February on writer Lu Gengsong in the eastern city of Hangzhou on the same charge.

Li Changqing, the former editor of "Fuzhou Daily", was freed on 2 February on completing a three-year sentence for "spreading alarmist reports."

Mak Chai-ming of the Ching Cheong Concern Group told Reporters Without Borders he was "very happy" about Ching's release and hoped Ching would now be able to explain the circumstances and reasons for his arrest. The Hong Kong Journalists Association said it hoped this kind of arrest would not recur. The management of the 'Straits Times' said it was "delighted by this long-awaited release."

When a Reporters Without Borders representative met with Ching's wife, Mary Lau, in Hong Kong in December 2007, she described his prison conditions: "He is in a cell with 12 other inmates, most of them criminals serving long sentences. There are two factories in the prison. He has to work eight hours a day, with additional hours twice a week, until 9 pm. He makes police uniforms. The prisoners are not paid."

Lau added: "Ching had a problem with high blood pressure before his arrest, but it flared up only two or three times a year. Now he has it all the time. He is suffering as a result of the military discipline in the prison. He has lost 15 kilos since his arrest. You already know that the first month, when he was held in Beijing, was extremely tough. The way he was treated could be regarded as mental torture."

Ching has had heart and stomach problems, and doctors reportedly discovered a duodenal ulcer. He was hospitalised on more than one occasion, but the family was not told until several weeks later.

The holder of a "British National Overseas" passport, Ching was arrested on 22 April 2005 while visiting Guangzhou and was sentenced on 31 August 2006 to five years in prison and a fine of 60,000 euros for allegedly spying for Taiwan. The official news agency Xinhua published a report claiming the Ching sold business, political and military information to Taiwanese agents for millions of dollars between 2000 and 2005.

Ching worked from 1974 to June 1989 for the Hong Kong-based daily "Wen Wei Po", which supports the Beijing government. He resigned after the Tiananmen Square massacre and set up an independent political magazine called "Contemporary". He joined the Singapore-based "Straits Times" in 1996. He has written many articles and books about the Communist Party of China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Reporters Without Borders and the Hong Kong Journalists Association launched an appeal for Ching's release on 2 June 2005. The petition, which can be accessed at http://www.petition-chingcheong.org , had been signed by more than 30,000 people.

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