Zhao Qianli, the Chinese student who was arrested late last year for taking pictures of a U.S. naval base, pleaded guilty on Tuesday and landed himself a one-year jail sentence.
The 20-year-old student from North University of China appeared in court via a remote video hookup from a federal courthouse in Key West, Florida along with his defense attorney on Tuesday. According to Miami Herald, he pleaded guilty to one count of photographing defense installations at the Key West military facility. The other five counts in his indictment were dismissed as part of his plea deal.
Zhao received a one year sentence from U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore – the maximum sentence one can get, which is much higher than the sentencing guidelines between zero to six months.
Zhao was arrested in Sept. after he was caught trespassing onto the high-security Naval Air Station while on a tour after finishing his summer exchange program in the United States. Investigators found several pictures on his digital camera that he took while inside the naval base including government buildings and a Defense Department antenna field.
After he was captured by federal authorities, Zhao was questioned and said he was lost after being separated from his fellow tourists and that he did not realize that the place was a military base; however, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) did not believe his explanation.
In the court filings on Tuesday’s hearing, the FBI implied that Zhao was not a tourist, but possibly a spy for the Chinese government. They also pointed out the contradiction in his statement claiming that he was a lost tourist when investigators found no pictures of typical tourist spots on his smartphone or digital camera.
“The primary pictures on that camera were of the military facility,” Federal prosecutor Michael Sherwin said. “It did not have the hallmark of a tourist who got lost and wandered onto the military facility.”
Hongwei Shang, Zhao’s defense attorney, repeated that her client is nothing more but a college student who visited the country as a tourist after finishing up his summer exchange program.
“He’s not a spy,” she said. “A spy would not do things like him. There’s no proof. … He committed a stupid mistake. He confessed to it. He just wants to go home.”
Zhao’s arrest came weeks after US intelligence agencies warned that China is using students to spy and steal secrets for business, technology, and science for Beijing, CNN reported. The same sentiment was echoed last year in February by FBI Director Chris Wray, suggesting that Chinese students pose a national security threat for the country.