The Trinity College student held in a Chinese labor camp for almost two years because of his membership in the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement is to be released in March, writes Miriam Donohoe.

News of the release of Mr. Zhao Ming was given to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Cowen, during a 2-hour meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Mr. Tang Jiaxuan, in Beijing yesterday.

Mr. Zhao, a postgraduate computer science student in Trinity, has been detained in the Tuan He Farm Labor Camp in Daxin County outside Beijing since May 2000.

The Taoiseach, Mr. Ahern, and the President, Mrs. McAleese, raised the matter with the Chinese Premier, Mr. Zhu Rongji, when he visited Ireland last September. Human rights groups, including the Irish branch of Amnesty International and the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs. Mary Robinson, have also expressed their concern about the case.

Mr. Cowen told The Irish Times last night that Mr. Tang told him that Mr. Zhao would be released on March 12th, as he had now been sufficiently "re-educated".

He said he was given assurances that Mr. Zhao would be free to apply to return to Ireland to continue his studies. "I was also assured that there was no physical ill-treatment of him during his detention and that he has had medical checks. I welcome the fact that his period of detention will end and it will be open to him to return if he wishes," said Mr. Cowen, in China on a three-day official visit.

Falun Gong members have claimed that Mr. Zhao was tortured while in detention, beaten by guards with electric batons and allowed only two hours' sleep a day. They further claim that on one occasion guards tried to force him to write anti-Falun Gong material and that he was beaten to the brink of death when he refused.

Mr. Zhao (31) returned to China from Dublin in December 1999 for the Christmas period. He was arrested in Beijing for protesting at the suppression of Falun Gong and had his passport taken away and as a result was unable to return to Dublin to continue his studies.

He was detained again four months later after he was followed to the home of a fellow Falun Gong practitioner. There was no trace of him for several months until his family discovered that he was being detained in a labor camp outside Beijing.

Falun Gong claim that 5,000 of its members are detained in camps across China, and that hundreds have died as a result of torture.