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Three Chinese students get prison time for taking photos on Navy bases in Key West

Aerial photo of Naval Air Station Key West's Trumbo Point Annex, Florida. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Cody R. Babin/U.S. Navy)

Three Chinese nationals were sentenced Thursday to federal prison for illegally taking photos of military installations at the Naval Air Station Key West.

Lyuyou Liao, 27, received the maximum penalty of one year in prison followed by one year of supervised release. He pleaded guilty to illegally entering Truman Annex on Dec. 26, 2019, and taking photos and video of the property.

“This included taking images of vital military equipment,” said Marlene Rodriguez, the spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Ariana Fajardo Orshan of the Southern District of Florida.

Liao, whose sentencing hearing lasted 20 minutes, originally told police he walked onto the base to take photos of the sunrise. But when Liao allowed the agent to look at the images, the agent said he saw images of Truman Annex.

Witnesses warned Liao he was trespassing as he used his cellphone camera to capture images of government buildings near “sensitive military facilities,” according to the federal criminal complaint.

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Liao was working on his Ph.D. in St. Louis while on a full scholarship from the Chinese government, prosecutors said.

Chief Judge K. Michael Moore sentenced Liao, along with two other Chinese college students caught on the wrong side of the fence at another Navy base annex on the island.

Jielun Zhang, 25, and Yuhao Wang, 24, who attended the University of Michigan, both pleaded guilty to illegally entering the Sigsbee Park Annex — which includes a large residential population and a charter school — on Jan. 4, 2020, and taking photos of military infrastructure.

Zhang received the maximum one-year sentence from Moore and the judge gave Wang nine months in prison.

Both men will have one year of supervised release after prison.

Each presented to the judge several letters of support. Wang’s mother wrote that she blames herself for his actions since she is his mother and asked the judge for forgiveness.

“He is now in deep regret for his unintentional action” Jixiang Zhou wrote of her only son.

A professor of architecture at the University of Michigan wrote to the judge on behalf of Zhang, calling him a responsible, well-meaning student and blaming his “spotty English” for the arrest.

“When I learned that he was being held for a trespassing violation, I instantly understood the situation as one of poor comprehension of language and customs — a harmless error,” wrote Malcolm McCullough.

Prosecutors, however, said Zhang and Wang knew what they were doing.

At 8:30 a.m., police said they approached the guard station at Sigsbee Annex in the Naval Air Station, and were told to turn around but instead drove onto the restricted property.

After a half hour, U.S. Navy Security Forces located the students in their blue Hyundai car and found they were carrying cellphones and a Nikon camera

Since the fall of 2018, four Chinese nationals have been arrested on charges of shooting pictures of military facilities in Key West, drawing the sharp interest of U.S. counterintelligence investigators.

The first case was Zhao Qianli, a music student from China who in September 2018 got caught by Key West police trespassing at Truman Annex.

He used the shoreline at Fort Zachary State Park as his entrance. Federal agent later searched his digital camera and found images of the Navy base.

The Joint Interagency Task Force South, which is responsible for security and military operations in Central America, South America and the Caribbean, is located at Truman Annex.

Qianli pleaded guilty in February 2019 to one count of photographing defense installations and was sentenced to one year in prison by Moore.

At the time of his arrest, Qianli told police he was just a “dishwasher from New Jersey.”

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