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Yahoo said to aid China in 2003 subversion trial

Rights group says firm's data helped gain conviction

Chinese authorities used information obtained from the American Internet company Yahoo Inc. in 2003 to convict a Chinese citizen of ''inciting subversion," a French human rights group said yesterday.

The claim from the group Reporters Without Borders comes one week before the US Congress will hold hearings on the human rights policies of American Internet companies doing business in China. The hearings are being held at the behest of New Jersey Republican Representative Chris Smith, chairman of the human rights subcommittee of the House Committee on International Relations, and a staunch critic of Chinese human rights abuses. Smith has called on US companies to stop doing business in China rather than comply with demands to censor the Internet or hand over personal data on Chinese Internet users.

Reporters Without Borders said that Li Zhi, a 35-year-old former civil servant, used online discussion groups to criticize the corruption of local government officials. Li was arrested in August 2003 and convicted in December of the same year. He was sentenced to eight years in prison.

The Chinese-language Internet news site Boxun.com published a February 2004 appeal from Li's attorney. According to the appeal, Li was convicted partly on the basis of his Internet communications, which were obtained from Yahoo's Chinese operation in Hong Kong. Reporters Without Borders said that it confirmed from other sources that information from Yahoo was cited in the court's verdict.

The Li case is the second report in recent months that indicates Yahoo helped Chinese authorities prosecute people for exercising free speech. Last year, Yahoo admitted that it gave the Chinese government the e-mail records of Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist. Shi had anonymously e-mailed copies of a government memo urging newspapers to use caution in reporting on the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989, in which many dissident Chinese were killed. Government officials claimed that the memo was ''top secret." They successfully ordered Yahoo's China operation to provide data that helped identify the sender of the e-mail. As a result, Shi was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Yahoo yesterday did not respond to repeated telephone calls from the Globe, but in the past the company has said it has no choice but to comply with Chinese law.

Julien Pain, head of the Internet freedom desk at Reporters Without Borders headquarters in Paris, said Yahoo could solve the problem by moving its e-mail server computers outside of China and beyond the reach of Chinese law. ''You can't do business with China as if it was a democracy which respects human rights," Pain said. Yahoo's rival Google Inc. has come under fire for censoring its Internet search service in China. But Pain praised Google's decision to keep the servers for its e-mail service, Gmail, outside of Chinese territory.

Pain said American companies should be prepared to abandon the Chinese Internet market rather than assist in censorship. But he also argued that it probably wouldn't come to that if American companies took a stronger stand. ''If you stand up to China, you can negotiate with them," he said.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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