A U.S. Justice Department program aimed at protecting American technology from China dropped five prosecutions of Chinese scientists after a draft of an internal FBI analysis questioned a main premise for the investigations, according to court documents.
The “China Initiative” had been criticized by civil liberties advocates as racially biased, and judges in several court proceedings had expressed skepticism about the FBI’s tactics in interrogating the scientists.
On Thursday and Friday, the U.S. government filed motions in federal courts to dismiss charges in five cases of Chinese researchers arrested on visa fraud charges last year. All pleaded not guilty of falsifying visa applications to conceal military ties as well as other charges.
The motions to dismiss the cases coincide with the visit of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to China on Sunday and Monday.
Shift in political climate
All five arrests occurred about a year ago when U.S.-China relations were at a nadir, and now the world’s two largest economies are seeking to navigate a troubled relationship.
The Justice Department said in a statement that it was dismissing the cases in the “interest of justice.”
U.S.-based Chinese officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the development.
“Recent developments in a handful of cases involving defendants with alleged, undisclosed ties to the People’s Liberation Army of the People’s Republic of China have prompted the department to re-evaluate these prosecutions,” a statement by Justice Department spokesperson Wyn Hornbuckle said, without detailing what those developments were.
Court documents filed this month in two cases included FBI draft analysis that questioned how useful the investigation was in safeguarding technology developed in the United States. The report said that the visa application question about military service that ensnared the scientists was unclear.
The analysis was written in reaction to the China Tech Transfer Analysis Unit at the FBI being nominated in February for an award based on the “high impact” of the “arrests of the PLA students.” PLA refers to the Chinese military. The FBI unit leader disagreed on the impact of the arrests and removed the unit from the award nominations, according to the court documents.
Trial was near
Asked about the court filing, a Justice Department official answered by email that the “draft analysis prompted follow-up questions and requests from defense counsel that we could not resolve” ahead of trial. One of the cases was scheduled to go to trial Monday.
The official said that in most of the cases the sentences would be a year or less and that the defendants have had their liberty restricted for that time, whether in jail or out on bail.
Defense lawyers have said their clients’ only crime is running afoul of U.S.-China politics.
John Hemann, a lawyer for Chinese brain researcher Song Chen, said they were “grateful and relieved” the case against her had been dismissed and “the government has done the right thing.”