WASHINGTON – Dickson Yeo, the Singaporean man who pleaded guilty to spying for China in the United States, is due to be sentenced in a US federal court on Friday (Oct 9).
Prosecutors have asked for a sentence of 16 months in light of Yeo’s cooperation with the authorities, while Yeo’s lawyer is asking for a sentence of time served, which would work out to approximately 13 months.
Yeo, 39, has been in a Washington DC jail since he was arrested last November. He will likely spend some extra time in the custody of immigration authorities while awaiting his removal from the US, said his lawyer Michelle Peterson.
“He did not betray Singapore and he does not bear any malice towards the United States or any US citizens. He was deeply attracted to China and its ability to uplift millions from poverty with industrial policy, which led him to be easily influenced,” she said in court documents seen by The Straits Times.
In July, Yeo pleaded guilty to acting under the direction of Chinese intelligence officials to obtain sensitive information from American citizens.
Yeo, who was then a PhD student at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, used social media to target American military and government employees who had access to sensitive information and persuaded them to write reports for cash.
Asking for leniency in sentencing, Yeo’s lawyer said 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.
Yeo suffers from high blood pressure and anxiety, as well as depression and post traumatic stress disorder stemming from his national service in Singapore, said his lawyer.
He was also lonely, broke and floundering academically when he was recruited by Chinese intelligence services, she added.
“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 said, adding that Yeo acknowledged he was vulnerable.
Yeo’s professional reputation is now in ruins and he will have difficulty even securing basic employment in Singapore, she said.
“He wants nothing more than to return to a quiet life with his parents,” she added.
Prosecutors said that Yeo’s conduct was serious and warranted a significant sentence. They argued that he was preparing to obtain classified information when he had been arrested, and that his work for Chinese intelligence services was not a one-off lapse in judgment.
“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 said, noting that his work for Beijing came within the larger context of China’s ongoing theft of information from the US.
“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,” they said.
“He used the tradecraft of espionage, and he exploited the openness of American society and the Internet,” they added.
However, they also acknowledged that he pled guilty early in the case and cooperated with the US government.
CIRCUMSTANCES OF YEO’S ARREST
Court documents revealed that Yeo agreed to be interviewed by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, going so far as to voluntarily disembark from a plane he had already boarded, which could have gotten him out of the US scot-free.
Prosecutors said that Yeo had been initially interviewed by border agents when he entered the US via the John F Kennedy international airport in New York on Nov 6. He did not reveal then that he was working for Chinese intelligence services.
However, he did tell the officers that he met with civil servants and diplomats to write papers about how China treats smaller strategic states such as Singapore and South Korea, adding that some of his work could be “borderline of corporate espionage”.
After the interview, Yeo deleted the WeChat app he used to communicate with his Chinese handlers from his mobile phone and booked a flight out of the US the next day.
On Nov 7, he returned to the airport, where he was approached by FBI agents who asked him for a voluntary interview.
Although he initially declined to be interviewed and went to board his flight, Yeo changed his mind, returned to the FBI agents and agreed to be interviewed, according to court documents.
Yeo was forthcoming about his activities and admitted that he was working for Chinese intelligence. He agreed to continue meeting with the FBI after that interview.
He was arrested and taken into custody the next day, on Nov 8.
Arguing for a lighter sentence, Yeo’s lawyer Michelle Peterson pointed out that he agreed to subject himself to the United States 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 in court documents.
This, she said, was an “exceptional level of acceptance of responsibility and genuine showing of remorse”.