Dickson Yeo Jun Wei, a Singaporean man who was arrested in the United States (US) last November under the charge of working as a spy for Chinese intelligence in the US, is due to be sentenced in a US federal court on Friday (9 Oct), as reported by The Straits Times.
In view of Mr Yeo’s cooperation with the authorities, the prosecutors have thus asked for a sentence of 16 months, but Mr Yeo’s lawyer, Michelle Peterson, has asked for a sentence of time served, which would work out to approximately 13 months.
Asking for a lighter sentence, Ms Peterson argued that Mr Yeo agreed to subject himself to the US’s legal system, even though he was completely free to board a plane and leave the US without repercussion.
“When he was approached at the airport, he was free to leave. Nevertheless, he agreed instead to be debriefed by the agents. He deplaned when he did not have to do so, and fully debriefed,” she said, adding that this was an “exceptional level of acceptance of responsibility and genuine showing of remorse”.
According to the court document, Mr Yeo agreed to be interviewed by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents, and even voluntarily disembarked from his flight which he had already boarded.
On 6 November last year, when Mr Yeo entered the US via the John F Kennedy International Airport in New York, he was interviewed by border agents.
During the interview, he did not reveal upfront that he was working for Chinese intelligence services, but he did mention that he met with civil servants and diplomats to write papers about how China treats smaller strategic states such as Singapore and South Korea, noting that some of his work could be “borderline of corporate espionage”.
After the interview, Mr Yeo deleted the messaging app that he used to communicate with his Chinese handler, and proceeded to book a flight out of the US the next day.
When he returned to the airport on 7 November, he was approached by FBI agents who asked him for a voluntary interview.
It was stated in the court document that Mr Yeo initially declined to be interviewed, and went ahead to board his flight, but he then changed his mind, and returned to the FBI agents to be interviewed.
Mr Yeo admitted to working for Chinese intelligence, and was forthcoming about his activities while agreeing to continue meeting with FBI agents after the interview.
He was arrested and placed under detention on 8 November.
Prosecutors say Mr Yeo “willingly” became a part of “threat” that China posed to the US; His lawyer argues he was “vulnerable” and “deeply attracted to China”
Stressing that his conduct was “serious and warranted a significant sentence”, the prosecutors noted that Mr Yeo was preparing to obtain classified information when he had been arrested, adding that his work for Chinese intelligence services was “not a one-off lapse in judgment”.
The prosecutors also pointed out that Mr Yeo’s work for Beijing came within the larger context of China’s ongoing theft of information from the US.
“The threat posed by the PRC (People’s Republic of China) is grave and long-term. Defendant Yeo willingly became a part of that threat,” they noted.
“He understands that China seeks to diminish US influence in the world. Indeed, the defendant has admitted that he was motivated by a desire to help China do just that. He used the tradecraft of espionage, and he exploited the openness of American society and the Internet,” the prosecutors added.
Meanwhile, Mr Yeo’s lawyer wrote in the court document, saying that Mr Yeo “did not betray Singapore”, and “does not bear any malice towards the US or any US citizens”.
Providing a justification to his actions, Ms Peterson explained, “He was deeply attracted to China and its ability to uplift millions from poverty with industrial policy, which led him to be easily influenced.”
“He was very remorseful, had immediately accepted responsibility for his conduct, and held nothing back from the US authorities. He deeply regrets having gotten caught up in the swirl of satisfying Chinese intelligence requirements and compromising his own integrity,” she added, before asking for leniency in sentencing.
According to Ms Peterson, Mr Yeo suffers from high blood pressure and anxiety, as well as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after his national service in Singapore.
Citing Mr Yeo’s acknowledgement of his vulnerability, the lawyer said that he was “lonely and broke and floundering academically” when he was recruited by Chinese intelligence services.
“The Chinese gave him more respect and dignity for the work he was doing that he was able to obtain from his efforts at academia,” she added.
As a consequence of this dispute, Ms Peterson pointed out that the professional reputation of Mr Yeo is “now in ruins”, and that “he will have difficulty even securing basic employment in Singapore”.
“He wants nothing more than to return to a quiet life with his parents,” she remarked.
Ms Peterson also revealed that Mr Yeo has been in a Washington DC jail since he was arrested, adding that he will probably spend some extra time in the custody of the immigration authorities while awaiting his removal from the US.
Earlier, it was reported that Mr Yeo had his PhD candidature in National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) terminated on 26 July 2020.
A spokesperson from the university said in a statement that his enrollment was terminated after he pleaded guilty to one charge of operating illegally as a foreign agent.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said on 26 July that it was informed by the US authorities of Mr Yeo’s arrest in November last year.
“Investigations have not revealed any direct threat to Singapore’s security,” said a spokesperson from the Ministry in response to media queries.