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Spy cases turn spotlight on shadowy legal system

By CNN's Lisa Weaver

BEIJING, China -- US-China relations were in flux even as the U.S. Secretary of State made his way toward Beijing for a visit designed to solidify ties in the ever-eventful diplomatic relationship.

While Powell was still in Hanoi attending ASEAN, the symbol of the moment had narrowed down to a 39 year old woman separated from her five-year-old son and husband for nearly half a year.

Gao Zhan, sentenced to 10 years in a Chinese prison for espionage two days earlier, was released on medical parole just hours after Colin Powell ventured that "the relationship is on an upswing, now that the irritations are behind us."

Powell said he thought Beijing, which had already released U.S. citizen Li Shaomin, was anxious to move forward. Probably so, although as usual, on its own terms.

Spy cases turn spotlight on shadowy legal system  
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The criticisms of China's legal system are significant: that it's known for opening trials only when the state's evidence is already clearly stacked and ordered; that the release of dissidents and other problematic detainees indeed flout Chinese law, as medical releases are often more about diplomatic convenience than real medical conditions.

Still, Gao Zhan's defense lawyers, who were not appointed by the state, made the point that legal procedure -- not U.S. pressure -- drove China's handling of the sensitive case.

"We think that in this case, the Chinese prosecutors and courts have closely followed the rule of law all along. We want to take this opportunity to show the whole world that the system of law in China is moving forward. The environment of the legal system is improving every day," said Bai Xuebiao, at an impromptu press conference as Gao Zhan flew toward freedom.

Indeed the lawyers' availability to the international media throughout Gao Zhan's trial and subsequent release was itself unusual.

In an early interview with CNN, Bai Xuebiao revealed that state prosecutors would try to prove Gao Zhan was working with Li Shaomin. It was the first indication that China was casting the espionage net to include every link in a chain of academics who allegedly endangered national security.

The combination of relative openness in the context of a still very closed-off political culture even bordered on the comical at times.

During Gao Zhan's trial, a CNN crew sat behind smoked glass windows of their vehicle, partially obscured by other cars and junk in a cluttered parking lot, just outside the south gate of the Beijing First Intermediate Peoples' Court.

Guards appeared agitated and pointed at the car while off duty police peered inside and smiled. The crew were allowed to lurk and covertly film Gao Zhan's lawyers briefing her relatives during a break in the proceedings, so long as crew and camera remained inside the car.

Gao Zhan
Gao Zhan  

Court officials brought out what appeared to be the notice of Gao's conviction, and posted it on a bulletin board right outside the gate but only for less than a minute, just enough time for a court photographer to snap a photo, before it was removed and crumpled.

When Gao's defense lawyers emerged after the court reached its verdict, no statement was read on the courthouse steps. Instead the pair had to be whisked away to another part of town so that an interview could be conducted hurriedly on a public street.

But even with the releases of a string of academics that include Li Shaomin, Gao Zhan and Qin Guangguang, Beijing has sent an ominous message to ethnic Chinese academics with links abroad in country where the distinctions between information in the public domain and state secrets is often dangerously blurred.

"There's a lot of things to learn, starting with you'd better caution people just as the State Department cautioned people, especially those of Chinese descent, before they decide to engage in academic research in China," says Jerome Cohen, a Chinese legal expert and the lawyer hired by Gao's family in the U.S.

"Certainly it cautions people to be very careful in accepting any fellowships from foundations in Taiwan," he warned.

"It's going to make people go more carefully. It's certainly going to inspire some American lawyers to learn more about the realities of Chinese justice. And it will help some Chinese lawyers become better known because of their cooperation with us," Cohen added.

The irony there is, China's efforts to showcase its legal procedures may in the end open it up to much more examination than it ever bargained for.


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