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China formally arrests detained U.S. academic


HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- China has formally arrested a Chinese-born U.S. scholar on spying charges after detaining her for 52 days.

Gao Zhan was arrested on charges of "accepting money from a foreign intelligence agency" and "participating in espionage activities in China."

The move is likely to fuel growing tensions between the two nations as China and the United States continue their verbal skirmish over the collision between a U.S. Navy spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet last weekend that left 24 U.S. crew members in Chinese custody and a Chinese pilot missing at sea.

Gao, a social science fellow at American University in Washington, D.C., is one of four U.S. academics currently being held by China. Her husband, Xue Donghua, said she was being held incommunicado.

"We have not been able to contact her. The U.S. Embassy and the Red Cross are not allowed to visit her. We have no idea if she is in good health," Xue said in a written statement.

The Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said Gao's case had been complicated by the heightened China-U.S. tension after the weekend air collision and continuing standoff over the U.S. plane and its crew.

The Chinese Security Bureau informed Gao's parents in Nanjing on Tuesday that she had been formally arrested.

According to Chinese law, a person can be detained for no more than 30 days before a formal arrest. Gao was detained on February 11 -- 52 days before charges were filed.

Gao, her husband and their 5-year-old son, Andrew, were taken into custody in Beijing as they prepared to return to the United States. The Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy's spokesman, Frank Lu, told CNN that China suspected Gao's visit was to carry out spying activities.

Xue and the couple's son were held for 26 days at separate locations. Xue said police interrogated him, with the questioning focused specifically on Taiwan.

Xue and Andrew were released and left China on March 8, and since then there has been no word on Gao's whereabouts or condition.

"The Foreign Ministry says Gao is suspected to have been involved in activities that may harm China's security ... but after U.S. President Bush and Secretary of State Powell urged Chinese Vice-Premier Qi Qichen to release Gao, Chinese Foreign Ministry changed to say that Gao is spying," Xue said.

He urged the Chinese government to release Gao. He also asked for help from the U.S. government. But Lu said the United States will take a low-profile approach to the issue.

"The release of the 24 U.S. plane crew is on the top priority. I don't think the U.S. would press China too much for the release of Gao," he said.

Lu said it is general practice for China to proceed with prosecution after a formal arrest. He said Gao could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison on the charge.

But there are exceptions: In 1999, Song Yongyi, a historian from Fairleigh Dickinson University, was detained for more than six months while in China to visit family, attend conferences and to follow up on his research on the Cultural Revolution. He was released as a result of aggressive public campaigns.

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American University
U.S. Embassy in China
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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