China releases investigative journalist after almost year in jail

BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese investigative journalist who accused officials of corruption has been released after almost a year in detention, his lawyer said on Sunday.

Liu Hu, a reporter with the Guangzhou-based newspaper New Express, was arrested on a charge of defamation last September.

His lawyer Zhou Ze said prosecutors had called him to say that Liu was being released as they were "unable to proceed with the case within the legal detention limits".

Writing on his Weibo microblog account, Zhou said: "I have always believed that Liu Hu was innocent."

Liu was first detained last August on suspicion of "fabricating and spreading rumors" after accusing a deputy director of the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, a business regulatory body, of dereliction of duty while serving as Communist Party secretary of a district in southwestern Chongqing.

Zhou had called the charge a "speech crime" and said the government could be targeting Liu because he had detailed specific allegations against a number of officials, including some in senior positions, in many provinces.

President Xi Jinping has made fighting graft a priority of his administration and has specifically targeted extravagance and waste to quell public anger over corruption and restore faith in the ruling Communist Party.

The government had encouraged the use of the internet to expose graft, but has detained activists who called for officials to publicly disclose their assets and cracked down on what it calls "rumour-mongering" in what is widely seen as an effort to halt criticism of the party.

Wary of threats to its authority or social stability, the party has also stepped up its already tight control over social media to limit public discussion of sensitive political issues.

High-profile bloggers and investigative reporters have said the campaign's effect has been to force them to curtail sensitive postings for fear of detention.

Lawyers and activists have called the crackdown a significant if crude expansion of powers to police the internet and a blow to those who use microblogs to disseminate information in the belief that they are not monitored as strictly as traditional media.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Lynne O'Donnell)