- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009

BEIJING (AP) - China released two men after they completed eight-year prison terms for being part of a study group that focused on political reform and posted essays online, a human rights group said.

Internet engineer Yang Zili and freelance writer Zhang Honghai were freed Thursday, New York-based Human Rights in China said in an statement.

Along with journalist Xu Wei and geologist Jin Haike, they were known as the “four gentlemen of Beijing” when they were arrested in March 2001 for belonging to the New Youth Study Group, the Friday statement said.

The group’s meetings reportedly drew many university students and members who communicated by e-mail and posted essays on a Web site, it said.

The essays bore titles such as “China’s democracy is fake,” and “Be a new citizen, remake China,” according to a copy of the indictment released at the time by the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy.

All four were convicted of subversion and intention to overthrow the Communist Party in May 2003, the group said. Wu and Jin were sentenced to 10 years.

China says its law guarantees citizens freedom of speech and expression, but critics are often arrested under an antisubversion clause, a vague term that can yield hefty prison terms.

Yang and Zhang are subject to two years’ deprivation of political rights, including freedom of speech and assembly, Human Rights in China said. They could not be reached for comment Saturday.

Human Rights in China said they were all in their 20s when they were detained, and the trial rested on three witnesses who also were members of the study group, one who was an informant for the Ministry of Public Security. After the conviction, all three witnesses said their testimony was given under coercion, the group said.

The four also said at the trial they were abused while in police detention, including beatings and electric shocks to the genitals.

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