BEIJING | An American geologist held and tortured by China's state security agents was sentenced to eight years in prison Monday for gathering data on the Chinese oil industry in a case that highlights the government's use of vague secrets laws to restrict business information.
In pronouncing Xue Feng guilty of spying and collecting state secrets, the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People's Court said his actions "endangered our country's national security."
Its verdict said Xue received documents on geological conditions of onshore oil wells and a database that gave the coordinates of more than 30,000 oil and gas wells belonging to China National Petroleum Corporation and listed subsidiary PetroChina Ltd.
That information, it said, was sold to IHS Energy, the U.S. consultancy Xue worked for and now known as IHS Inc.
The sentence of eight years is close to the recommended legal limit of 10 for all but extremely serious violations. Though Xue, now 45 and known as a meticulous, driven researcher, showed no emotion when the court announced the verdict, it stunned his lawyer and his sister, his only family member allowed in the courtroom.
"I can't describe how I feel. It's definitely unacceptable," Xue's wife, Nan Kang, said by telephone, sobbing, from their home in a Houston suburb where she lives with their two children.
U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman attended the hearing to display Washington's interest in the case. He left without commenting, and the U.S. Embassy issued a statement calling for Xue's immediate release and deportation to the United States.
Xue's sentence punctuates a case that has dragged on for more than 2½ years and is likely to alarm foreign businesses unsure when normal business activities elsewhere might conflict with China's vague state security laws.
Chinese officials have wide authority to classify information as state secrets. Draft regulations released by the government in April said business secrets of major state companies qualify as state secrets.
"This is a very harsh sentence," said John Kamm, an American human rights campaigner whom the State Department turned to for help last year to lobby for Xue's release. "It's a huge disappointment and will send very real shivers up the spines of businesses that do business in China."
Agents from China's internal security agency detained Xue in November 2007 and tortured him, stubbing lit cigarettes into his arms in the early days of his detention. His case first became public when the Associated Press reported on it in November.
A spokesman for IHS, which is based in Englewood, Colo., said the company is disappointed by the news yet declined to comment on China's broad interpretation of state secrets.
In the past, the spokesman, Ed Mattix, has said that Chinese authorities never notified IHS that it was involved in any wrongdoing.
In rejecting Xue and his lawyer's arguments that no crime had been committed, the court cited the National Administration for the Protection of State Secrets as saying that the information Xue received on China National Petroleum Corp. was classified as either secret or confidential.
The court document indirectly acknowledged the difficulties Xue and IHS would have collecting data in such a restrictive environment.