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China releases prominent dissident early: group

A picture of jailed Chinese journalist Shi Tao is reflected in the entrance sign of China's embassy in Berlin August 24, 2007. REUTERS/Tobia
A picture of jailed Chinese journalist Shi Tao is reflected in the entrance sign of China's embassy in Berlin August 24, 2007. REUTERS/Tobia

BEIJING (Reuters) - China has released from prison early a prominent dissident and journalist who was jailed in 2005 for leaking state secrets abroad after Yahoo! was accused of helping authorities identify him, a rights group said.

Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Yahoo defended itself at the time, saying it had to abide by local laws.

The group PEN International said late on Saturday that Shi had been released 15 months before the end of his sentence.

"We welcome news of Shi Tao's early release, at a time when there seem to be increasingly long shadows over freedom of expression in China," the group's Marian Botsford Fraser said in a statement.

"Shi Tao's arrest and imprisonment, because of the actions of Yahoo China, signaled a decade ago the challenges to freedom of expression of Internet surveillance and privacy that we are now dealing with."

A Chinese rights activist, who is in contact with Shi, confirmed he had been released just over a week ago. The activist, who asked not to be identified, said Shi was not accepting interviews for now.

It was not immediately clear why he had been let out early, though such releases can be granted in China due to good behavior in jail.

Shi's prosecution was based on an email he sent to a New York-based website detailing media restrictions ahead of the 15th anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests around Tiananmen Square.

PEN said that Shi "was treated relatively well in prison during the last few years, and wrote many poems, including 'Song of October' written from prison after he learned that Liu Xiaobo had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize".

Liu was jailed in 2010 on subversion charges and new Chinese President Xi Jinping has shown no sign of wanting to release him or end the Communist Party's crackdown on dissidents and others who challenge the party's authority.

China is also in the midst of yet another push to rein in freedom of speech on the Internet, in what authorities say is a campaign to stop the spread of irresponsible rumors.

Yahoo shut its China email service last month, part of a gradual pull-back from the country since buying a stake in China's Alibaba Group Holding Ltd in 2005.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Ron Popeski)

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