U.S. immigration officials are moving forward with the deportation of a former American University researcher who pleaded guilty to selling sensitive technology to the Chinese government, despite a request by federal prosecutors that she be allowed to stay.
It is the latest twist in the case of Gao Zhan, 43, who was imprisoned by Chinese authorities on spy charges in 2001, then released after U.S. authorities -- including then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell -- intervened on her behalf. Later, she was convicted in this country of illegally selling dozens of microprocessors to the Chinese government.
Immigration officials took Gao into custody April 5, a day before she was to have completed a seven-month federal sentence. Her term was reduced substantially after prosecutors praised her cooperation in similar cases and called for leniency.
Made aware of the pending deportation proceedings against Gao, who is not a U.S. citizen, Paul J. McNulty, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, wrote to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in January, asking the agency to reconsider.
"While this recommendation is expressly not binding on ICE, we nevertheless entreat you to follow it in light of the cooperation provided by [Gao], which we found to be of significant and identifiable value to the government," McNulty wrote.
Now that Gao could be returned to China, where she faces a 10-year prison term, her husband, Xue Donghua, has contacted journalists and made a public plea for support.
"She was expected to be released and come home and be reunited with her children and then . . . all of sudden she's in prison again," said Xue, 41, of Herndon. "Now they want to deport her. . . . I'm so worried about her."
The U.S. attorney's office declined to comment yesterday.
Gao's attorney, Ladan Mirbagheri-Smith, said that her client lost credibility and public support after her conviction and that immigration officials are taking advantage of the situation in an effort to deport her.
"They're claiming she's a national security risk," Mirbagheri-Smith said. "But why would the U.S. attorney's office recommend she not be deported if she's a national security risk?"
Federal law mandates that foreign nationals convicted of serious felonies be removed from the United States upon the completion of their prison sentences.
Yesterday, ICE spokesman Dean Boyd said the agency had begun deportation proceedings against Gao in accordance with federal law.
"Throughout this process, ICE has consulted closely with the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia," Boyd said in a statement, adding that the agency's authority to deport Gao has been upheld by a federal judge. Last November, Gao admitted that she made more than $539,000 selling 80 microprocessors to a procurement agency of the Chinese government, and she pleaded guilty to one count each of illegal arms export and tax fraud.
Prosecutors said Gao had obtained the microprocessors under false pretenses by saying she would use them to do research for a Northern Virginia university. Because of the microprocessors' potential military use, Gao would have needed a license to export them legally to China.
At the time of her plea, her attorney said Gao thought the microprocessors would be used in civilian aircraft. The government said the equipment could be used in weapons systems.
Gao's husband, who is a U.S. citizen, also has run into legal problems and has pleaded guilty to a tax charge. His one-year sentence was put off while his wife was in prison. But he is to report May 23 to a federal prison in North Carolina. He said yesterday that his attorney is petitioning the court for more time to sort out his family's affairs.
Gao and Xue have three children, ages 1, 2 and 9. He said that his parents, who live with him in Herndon, neither drive nor speak English and that he does not know who will care for his children.
"I want people to have some sympathy for our children," Xue said. "If this country is merciful and forgiving, they should know three little children are innocent and their mom shouldn't be taken away, especially if she's already served her time."