Judge slaps former Chicago college student who spied for China with 8 years in federal prison – Chicago Tribune

A federal judge on Wednesday sentenced a former Chicago college student to eight years in federal prison for spying on behalf of the Chinese government, saying it was clear his ultimate goal was to become a “sleeper agent” and infiltrate some of China’s agents. USA. more sensitive operations.

Ji Chaoqun’s lawyers had asked US District Judge Ronald Guzman for a time served sentence, portraying Ji as an idealistic young student manipulated by far more sophisticated members of China’s spy recruitment agency, and pointing out that he was actually you never provided your home country with sensitive information. US secrets

In giving the 96-month term, however, Guzman said he was concerned about Ji’s “long-term” plans for the future, which included joining the US Army in a job with the CIA, FBI or the POT.

“I had a lot more on my mind,” Guzman said, as Ji sat at the defense table in an orange jail jumpsuit and listened through a Mandarin interpreter. “Her intention of him was to become a long-term Chinese sleeper agent.”

The sentence Guzmán handed down was much longer than even the roughly five-year term requested by federal prosecutors. Once he finishes serving his sentence, Ji will face deportation to China, though Guzman said it’s unlikely anyone there would consider him a criminal.

“The defendant sitting before me is likely to be considered an exemplary citizen in the country from which he came, and that is sad,” Guzmán said.

Ji, 31, was convicted by a jury in September of spying for the Chinese government by collecting information on scientists and engineers in the US with valuable insights into aerospace technology, artificial intelligence and even aircraft carriers.

The jury, which deliberated for about six hours over two days, acquitted Ji of two other counts of wire fraud on the grounds that he lied to the military when he applied to become a reservist in 2016.

His lawyer, Damon Cheronis, asked for time served, saying Ji had already suffered a lot in his nearly four and a half years in custody since his arrest. Ji had two bouts of COVID-19 while awaiting trial and had to endure misplaced anger from other inmates who accused him of bringing him to the facility simply because he was Chinese, Cheronis said.

“Nobody would think that coming to the United States, being arrested and going to jail for five years is a slap on the wrist,” Cheronis said.

Before being sentenced, Ji issued a brief apology to his family and the court for his actions, saying in English with a thick accent that he would “never do it again.”

Ji’s case was described in the Tribune in 2019 as symbolic of a growing area of ​​concern for US authorities: a sophisticated and far-reaching mission by the Chinese government for foreign spies and agents to steal ideas and technology from Chinese companies and contractors. defense around the world. country.

Ji Chaoqun is seen in a photo on his Facebook page.  Federal authorities allege the Illinois Institute of Technology student was secretly working for a Chinese spy agency.  He is being held at the Chicago Metropolitan Correctional Center.

The charges against Ji were part of a broader national security investigation that also led to the unprecedented arrest and extradition of his supervisor, Xu Yanjun, a top intelligence official at China’s top spy agency.

Xu, the first Chinese spy brought to the US to face criminal prosecution, was convicted in a Cincinnati federal court in November 2021 of attempting to steal trade secrets from military contractor GE Aviation. He was sentenced last year to 20 years in prison.

The charges against Ji allege that he was attacked by Chinese Ministry of State Security agents shortly before he arrived in Chicago in 2013 to study electrical engineering at IIT, a small private school east of the Dan Ryan Expressway that had forged educational ties. with Chinese universities. and schools.

After traveling back to China during the winter break, Ji was “eaten and drunk” by MSS handlers and eventually given a top-secret contract in which he pledged allegiance to the agency’s cause, agreeing to “dedicate the rest of my life to state security”. ”, according to prosecutors.

A photo of the contract surreptitiously taken by Ji was later found on his cell phone, though it was not signed. Ji also took photos of $6,000 given to him by MSS for living expenses in the US, prosecutors said.

Five days later, Ji returned to Chicago and immediately contacted a friend who was studying aeronautics and aviation at George Washington University in Washington, DC, Assistant US Attorney Barry Jonas told jurors in summarizing evidence at trial in September.

Ji sent the friend photos of the contract and cash and offered to share some of his “operating expenses” with him if he helped find leads for the MSS, Jonas said.

Jonas told jurors that sending the photos to his friend was “maybe not the brightest thing” Ji did, but that didn’t make him any less of a spy.

“There is no requirement that you find that he is James Bond,” Jonas said.

Eventually, Ji was able to collect background reports on eight US citizens, all born in Taiwan or China, with careers in the science and technology industry, including several who specialized in the aerospace field. Seven worked for US defense contractors, according to prosecutors.

Ji sent the reports, which were publicly available for purchase, back to his supervisors in a zipped attachment that was falsely labeled “midterm exam” question sets, according to Jonas.

Ji graduated from IIT in 2015 and enlisted in the US Army Reserve the following year through a program to recruit foreigners with skills deemed vital to the national interest.

Prosecutors alleged that Ji concealed during his Army background check that he had been in contact with intelligence officers, but the jury found him not guilty on both counts.

However, the jury convicted him of giving false answers on a government background form that asked if he had ever had any contact with foreign intelligence agencies, including MSS.

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