BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese journalist jailed while working for the New York Times was released on Saturday, ending a controversial prison term that highlighted the country's tough media controls.
Zhao Yan, looking noticeably thinner, was greeted by a small group of family and friends, including his daughter and sister, when he emerged from prison.
"These three years I have missed my family very much, especially my maternal grandmother, who is now more than 100 years old," Zhao said in a written statement.
"For that reason, I want some time to reunite with my family. After a short time, I hope to see many other friends and members of the media," Zhao said.
He added that he planned to make a longer statement expressing his views in the near future.
Zhao, who reported on official abuses, was sentenced to three years in prison for fraud in August 2006 -- a charge he denied.
He was detained in 2004 on accusations that included leaking state secrets after the Times reported former president Jiang Zemin was likely to give up his post as chairman of the Central Military Commission, which Jiang did shortly afterwards.
Zhao was accused of telling the newspaper about claims of rivalry between Jiang and his successor Hu Jintao. The Times has said the charge was groundless.
"We have said all along that Zhao Yan is an honourable, hard-working reporter whose only offence seems to have been practising journalism," Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, said in a statement.
"It is our expectation that Zhao Yan, having served his full three-year term, will now be able to resume his life and return to his chosen profession without restrictions."
Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based group that campaigns against media restrictions, said on Friday Zhao should have all his rights restored, including the right to work as a journalist.
China holds 35 journalists and 51 cyber-dissidents in prison "just for exercising their right to inform", the group said.
Zhao, an ex-cop with the gruff twang of a northeast China native, joined the Times Beijing office in 2004, after working as an investigative journalist for Chinese publications, mixing exposes of corruption and rural suffering with rights advocacy.
His case became the focus of intense campaigning by international human rights groups, which said he was a victim of the ruling Communist Party's capricious use of secrecy laws to stifle news. Senior U.S. diplomats also urged his release.
That pressure may have encouraged a Beijing court to unexpectedly reject the state secrets charge against Zhao, which would have attracted a sentence of 10 years or longer.
The court did find Zhao guilty of fraud, saying he took 20,000 yuan (1,326 pounds) from a village official in 2001 on the unfulfilled promise of helping the official avoid "labour re-education" -- a form of imprisonment.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China urged Chinese authorities to bring the country's state secrets and national security legislation in line with international norms.
It said in a statement that Zhao's case, along with the conviction of Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong-based correspondent for Singapore's Straits Times, on espionage charges had alarmed many China-based foreign correspondents.
"Zhao's case has highlighted the problem of harassment and intimidation of journalists in China.
We hope his release will mark the beginning of the end for such practices, which are not in keeping with China's aspirations, nor the world's expectations of an Olympic host," the group said.