Clamor grows louder against discredited ‘spy case’ prosecutor

Scientists among those pushing for 'China Initiative' figure to be shut out

A sign stands outside the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building, May 5, 2022, in Washington. (Patrick Semansky / AP)

Calls are growing louder for US President Joe Biden to withdraw the nomination for a senior legal post of an assistant US attorney who wrongfully prosecuted a China-born scientist for Chinese espionage.

Casey Arrowood, the lead prosecutor of Anming Hu, a China-born nanotechnology expert at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, was nominated by Biden in late July to serve as the US attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee for four years. The Senate Judiciary Committee logged the nomination on Aug 1 and hasn't set a date for a vote.

A coalition of Asian American groups-APA Justice, the Asian American Scholar Forum, the Tennessee Chinese American Alliance, and United Chinese Americans-have launched a campaign calling on the White House to withdraw Arrowood's nomination and for the judiciary committee to take no action on the nomination until an investigation and a hearing have been completed.

More than 1,700 scientists, researchers, public servants, civil rights advocates and concerned individuals, as well as 36 national, state and local organizations across the country, co-signed the letters sent to the White House and the judiciary committee on Sept 6.

In their letters, they said: "The nomination of Mr Arrowood is an affront to our communities. It opens a new wound when we still need to heal from the targeting and fallout before and during the 'China Initiative'."

The "China Initiative" was launched by the Justice Department during the presidency of Donald Trump with the purported aim of combating economic espionage. Hu was prosecuted under the program. Critics say the program unfairly targeted academics of Chinese descent, with many alleging racial bias, and it was dropped in March.

The letters from the campaign groups added: "Mr Arrowood's wrongful prosecution of Professor Hu betrayed the public trust and confidence we all place in our judicial system. Mr Arrowood demonstrated his poor judgment, wasted valuable taxpayers' dollars, failed to uphold justice and fairness, and eroded public trust. His unjust prosecution of Professor Hu, not once but twice, is deplorable and an embarrassment to our nation."

Series of actions

Hu's case was the first in a series of similar prosecutions under the initiative launched in November 2018.

Though FBI agent Kujtim Sadiku had admitted to falsely accusing Hu of being a spy for China, Arrowood pressed charges anyway. After the original trial of Hu ended in a mistrial with a deadlocked jury in June 2021, Arrowood pursued a retrial in the following month, despite calls from academic and civil rights groups to drop the case.

In September that year, US District Court Judge Thomas Varlan acquitted Hu of all charges, finding the government's evidence would be clearly insufficient to allow a rational jury to convict Hu.

Four prominent scientists of Chinese descent affected by similar false prosecutions also sent a joint letter to the White House and the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, opposing Arrowood's nomination.

The scientists-Gang Chen, an engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Qing Wang, a professor at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in China; Ning Xi, a professor of robotics and automation at the University of Hong Kong; and Xiaoxing Xi, a professor of physics at Temple University-were arrested on fraud or espionage charges from 2015 to 2021. All charges were eventually dropped by the government.

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