A noted Chinese-born human rights activist, who had been convicted by China of spying for Taiwan, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to helping export sensitive U.S. technology to China.
The case carries an unusual twist, because Gao Zhan, is known for her work opposing human rights violations in China.
Days after her spying conviction in July 2001, she was allowed to leave China for the United States, where she became a faculty research fellow at American University in Washington.
In a plea agreement struck with U.S. prosecutors, Gao admitted obtaining microprocessors that could be used for missile technology. Federal prosecutors say some of that technology reached Chinese military officials.
Gao, 43, also pleaded guilty to tax fraud. She could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison on the charges.
She admitted in court to receiving $540,000 in wire transfers from China in 2000 for the technology.
Investigators say Gao tried from 1998 through 2002 to provide technology materials to entities of the Chinese military that specialize in aircraft and radar. Sources say she used aliases, posing as a professor from other institutions when calling private U.S. military contractors. Gao claimed she wanted information on the technology for scholarly research.
One suspicious contractor checked her credentials at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where Gao claimed she was working, and discovered she was not employed there. The unnamed company then called investigators.
Sources say Gao was under U.S. investigation for trying to illegally obtain technology during the same period she was accused by Beijing of spying for Taiwan. It is unclear why the Chinese government charged her with espionage at the same time she allegedly was helping the Chinese military.
Prosecutors said Gao is likely to serve some prison time, but is unlikely to be deported.
In court, Gao was soft-spoken, and later broke down in tears before U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis, saying, “My lawyer told me if I don’t cooperate, I’ll serve a longer prison sentence.”
After Ellis told her that by pleading guilty, she would not be eligible for parole, Gao asked, “What if I have a health problem?” She said she taking medication for depression, and had previously been suffering from heart problems.
Her husband, Xue Donghua, is also appearing in court before Ellis, and is expected to plead guilty to a misdemeanor tax violation. The couple has agreed to refile updated federal tax returns.
Gao is a prominent human rights activist in the United States, and has been honored by several organizations. The Web site of the American Immigration Law Foundation praised Gao’s work noting, “She still manages to maintain her resolve in telling the world what China is truly about and what the international community can do to push its door open for change, particularly political change.”
Her cause was widely supported by prominent Americans, including Sen. George Allen, R-Virginia.
Gao first came to the United States in 1989 after a crackdown on student dissidents by the Chinese government. She obtained a doctorate in social sciences from Syracuse University.
She is a permanent legal resident of the United States, living in Virginia, and is married with a young son.