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Rainbow Bridge arrest that became international incident ends 13 years later

Thirteen years ago, Zhao Yan's arrest on the Rainbow Bridge ignited a diplomatic firestorm stretching all the way to China.

Within days, Chinese newspapers were running photos of the visiting tourist, her face bruised and eyes swollen nearly shut, with statements from her calling the United States "barbarous" and "brutal."

The federal government, eager to calm China's outrage, apologized to Zhao and quickly switched its focus to Robert Rhodes, the customs officer who arrested her.


After an 11-year legal battle, Zhao was awarded $461,152 by a federal judge who questioned her credibility but nonetheless found evidence that Rhodes caused her injuries.

In awarding the Chinese businesswoman a partial victory, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth A. Wolford pointed to the worldwide attention her arrest in Niagara Falls generated in 2004 .


Yan Zhao of Tianjin, China, is seen shortly after her 2004 arrest at the Rainbow Bridge.

"The actual incident was over in a matter of minutes but the repercussions have lasted for over a decade," Wolford said in her decision.

The accounts of what happened that night in July of 2004 differ greatly but one thing is clear - both U.S. and Chinese officials intervened on Zhao's behalf.

Within days of her arrest, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing had discussed the incident and agreed on the need for an investigation.

"We regret the apparent mistreatment of a Chinese national by a U.S. customs officer in Niagara Falls," the U.S. State Department said in a statement at the time.

Rhodes denies using excessive force that day and claims he confronted and arrested Zhao because he suspected her of criminal wrongdoing.

Then he was charged a few days later and suspended from his job. Investigators said other officers saw Rhodes throw Zhao into a wall, grab her hair and strike her head on the ground.

But, in the end, Rhodes beat back the criminal prosecution and even won a return to work.

"The U.S. government handed this case to Zhao Yan on a silver platter by aggressively prosecuting Officer Rhodes rather than defending his righteous actions," said Steven M. Cohen, Rhodes' longtime attorney.

Cohen is quick to note that the same government that charged Rhodes criminally and fired him from his job eventually called on him to be a witness on its behalf in Zhao's civil case.

To hear Cohen talk, the strategy put the government in the position of initially painting Rhodes as the aggressor, a violent criminal capable of assaulting an innocent tourist from China, and then turning around and saying he was simply doing his job as a customs officer.

U.S. calls border agent as witness for its defense;Initially said Rhodes beat Chinese woman

"The government shot themselves in the foot," he said.

From Day One, according to federal prosecutors, the goal was justice and that is why they initially prosecuted Rhodes but later defended his actions.

In short, they don't see the inconsistency that Cohen believes led to Zhao's partial victory.

“Through our unsuccessful criminal prosecution several years ago, this office sought justice for Ms. Zhao by seeking to hold accountable the law enforcement officer who used force against Ms. Zhao," acting U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy Jr. said in a statement. "Through our defense of this civil case, this office sought to ensure that Ms. Zhao was not unjustly compensated for injuries which, according to Judge Wolford, did ‘not even approach the magnitude she claimed."

Bridge tape lacks evidence of struggle

In giving Zhao a monetary settlement, Wolford cited her false arrest, medical expenses, lost income and past and future pain and suffering.

In her ruling, the judge referred to Zhao's injuries - a concussion, bruises and abrasions on her face and damage to her teeth and jaw - in explaining her monetary award.

Wolford also made it clear that, despite those injuries, she found both Zhao and Rhodes lacked credibility. She instead relied on the testimony of other federal officers at the scene of the 2004 incident who said they saw Rhodes act aggressively.

Border security officer acquitted 'Jury did a great job for their country,' attorney says

Rhodes' own civil suits against the government, one for wrongful termination, were dismissed two years ago.

Lawyers for Zhao could not be reached for comment Monday.





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