HONG KONG — The Chinese government has held an American oil geologist on suspicion of stealing state secrets for nearly two years, prompting President Obama to raise the issue during his visit to Beijing this week, the American Embassy in Beijing said Friday.
The geologist, Xue Feng, has also been tortured by interrogators who pressed cigarettes into his arms, according to people seeking his release who have had access to him in custody.
Chinese prosecutors indicted Dr. Xue on a charge of theft of state secrets for having signed a contract on behalf of his employer at the time, IHS Inc., for the purchase of an oil industry database from a Chinese company, said Jerome A. Cohen, a New York University law professor who is seeking Dr. Xue’s release. Dr. Xue’s arrest received no public attention until this week and remained mired in a lengthy legal proceeding in Beijing.
The case raises broad issues for foreign businesses operating in China, Mr. Cohen said. Disclosure of Dr. Xue’s legal difficulties comes after China also arrested four executives from the British-Australian mining company Rio Tinto last summer and charged them with commercial bribery and trade secrets infringement for gathering information during iron ore price negotiations, although an initial threat to prosecute them for theft of state secrets was not pursued.
It is unusual for an American to spend as long in custody as Dr. Xue without attracting public notice. For the past two months, Dr. Xue has been pleading with consular officials to tell his friends to make his case public, said David Rowley, a University of Chicago professor of geophysical sciences who has written papers with Dr. Xue and has been campaigning for his release for more than a year.
IHS and Dr. Xue’s wife, Nan Kang, had both tried to keep the case quiet while seeking his release. Ed Mattix, a spokesman for IHS, a 3,800-employee global consulting and data company based in Englewood, Colo., said, “We have been advised that any further communication on the situation could be detrimental to the diplomatic efforts.”
Mr. Mattix said that the advice had come from “outside advisers” retained by the company, not from the State Department, and he declined to identify the advisers.
But Ms. Kang changed her mind on Friday and now favors public attention to the case because she is disappointed by the apparent lack of progress during President Obama’s visit, Dr. Rowley said, adding that Ms. Kang is convinced her husband is innocent.
Dr. Xue’s detention was first reported Thursday by The Associated Press, which said that it decided to report on it because of Dr. Xue’s wishes to go public and because of the lack of progress in negotiations for his freedom. Before Ms. Kang changed her mind, The New York Times decided on Friday to report on the case because the American Embassy was willing to discuss it publicly, because Dr. Xue wanted it public and because Mr. Cohen said that he believed that Dr. Xue would be more likely to benefit from, than be harmed by, greater international attention to his case.
Chinese officials have not indicated to IHS that they suspect the company of any wrongdoing, Mr. Mattix said. He added that Dr. Xue left the company six months before his arrest.
Mr. Cohen, who said Dr. Xue’s detention was the result of work done for IHS, was critical of IHS for not doing more to help Dr. Xue, particularly during the first months after his detention.
Mr. Mattix said that IHS’s only priority was to help win Dr. Xue’s release. Mr. Mattix declined to discuss whether IHS was providing legal assistance to Dr. Xue.
Dr. Xue and his wife were raised in China and still have family there. They moved to the United States and gained American citizenship. But the Chinese government has often taken the position that people cannot renounce their citizenship without permission by becoming citizens of another country.
Susan Stevenson, a spokeswoman for the United States Embassy in Beijing, said that consular officials had visited Dr. Xue in detention more than 20 times, most recently on Nov. 13. “The U.S. government is concerned for Dr. Xue’s well-being and rights to due process under Chinese law,” she said, adding that the embassy had raised his case repeatedly with high-level Chinese officials.
Mr. Cohen said that greater public attention had a strong potential to help in Dr. Xue’s case. “There’s always the risk that it may backfire,” he said, adding that there was also a chance it would work.
The Associated Press said that a spokesman for the No. 1 Intermediate Court in Beijing had said that Dr. Xue’s trial is “still in midprocess.”