- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

Nearly five years ago, the U.S. government exerted high-profile diplomatic pressure on China to secure the return of scholar Gao Zhan, a researcher at American University who Beijing thought was a spy for Taiwan.

Now the Department of Homeland Security is pushing with equal vigor to have her deported back to China, despite objections from the Department of Justice and a federal judge. A hearing is scheduled today in immigration court to determine whether Gao poses a risk to national security, as the Department of Homeland Security contends.

Gao’s case became international news in February 2001 when the American University researcher and her family were arrested by the Chinese on suspicion of espionage. Her husband, Xue Donghua, and the couple’s 5-year-old son were released after a month in custody.

But the Chinese government charged Gao with espionage.

The State Department protested and worked hard to secure her release. Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican, was one of many elected officials who took up her cause and introduced legislation, which ultimately failed, to grant her U.S. citizenship in absentia.

The Chinese government put Gao on trial in July 2001, convicted her and sentenced her to prison. But they decided to deport her to the United States rather than imprison her, and Gao received a hero’s welcome when she returned a month later.

Then, in 2003, Gao pleaded guilty to illegally exporting more than $1 million in military-grade computer microprocessors to a Chinese government agency. Court documents indicate that the scheme had preceded her 2001 arrest and that Gao knew the microprocessors could be used by the Chinese military.

She struck a plea bargain that resulted in a seven-month jail sentence, plus eight months in a halfway house. Her jail time was reduced because prosecutors thought Gao had provided useful information to the United States.

As part of the plea bargain, the Justice Department recommended that the Department of Homeland Security not deport Gao after she served her sentence.

Normally, such recommendations carry great weight, but in this case, the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are ignoring the recommendation and pushing for deportation.

The hearing today will determine whether Gao is a national security risk. If found to be a national security threat, she almost certainly would be deported. If not, a hearing in February is scheduled to determine whether Gao should be granted asylum.

Ladan Mirbagheri Smith, Gao’s immigration attorney, said Gao would face persecution in China given the 10-year prison sentence looming.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III, who sentenced Gao, said he never anticipated that she would face deportation and that if Gao were truly a national security risk, prosecutors would have brought more serious charges.

“I certainly never contemplated that she would face this situation,” Judge Ellis said at a post-trial hearing for Xue, who was convicted with Gao of tax evasion for failing to report profits from the microprocessor sales on their joint tax return. “Only the most serious proof [that Gao is a national security risk] should change that.”

Judge Ellis has allowed Xue to remain free and deferred the start of his prison sentence while Gao’s case remains unresolved.

Judge Ellis declined to formally intervene in Gao’s immigration case, saying the matter should be resolved by an immigration judge.

ICE spokesman Dean Boyd said the rationale for seeking Gao’s deportation is plain given the crime for which she was convicted.

“We know she was exporting sensitive technology with missile applications to Chinese government entities,” Mr. Boyd said. “A lot of our agents have invested quite a bit of time in this investigation.”

Gao wrote a letter to Judge Ellis in July seeking leniency for her husband and bemoaning her plight.

“I am writing in despair. I am cursing the day of my birth just like Job. I would have wished a quick end to my suffering if not for the sake of my children,” Gao wrote. “My own situation is as bad as can be, according to my lawyer. ICE could hold me for years while labeling me as a threat to national security. I am not sure if I could survive it.”

Xue said he feels double-crossed by government agents who led the family to think that Gao would not face deportation after serving her sentence.

“If it was ICE’s intention or determination to deport Gao to the Chinese government, they should have mentioned the issue during the [plea-bargain] process,” Xue wrote in court papers on his wife’s behalf.

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