Zhao's trial started this week, the Florida Keys Keynoter reported Monday, after he was arrested and taken into custody in late September. Zhao told authorities he was a "dishwasher from New Jersey" and was lost when authorities caught him wandering around US military property taking pictures of buildings.
Zhao was walking perilously close to Joint Interagency Task Force South, a subunit of US Southern Command, when witnesses saw him snapping photos, according to the FBI affidavit. Specifically, he was on one of the beaches in Key West that was a favorite bonefishing spot of late US President George H.W. Bush, according to the Miami Herald.
At a certain point, Zhao ventured from an area completely accessible to tourists onto military property. Zhao speaks "broken English," according to prosecutors. However, there were signs on the beach, as well as posters on a long fence that read "Restricted Area" between the public strand where he began and the private area in which he was arrested. The fence is not a highly effective barrier, though, as pedestrians can easily swim or walk around it to gain access to the US Navy property, Florida Keys Keynoter observed.
The Navy claims there is adequate security at the fence anyway: "These security measures we have in place, which are random, they work, obviously, because we caught the guy," a spokeswoman for Naval Air Station Key West told the Keynoter.
"The fence line Zhao Qianli circumvented had numerous warnings that noted the fenced facility was a ‘military installation' and ‘Restricted Area' warning signs posted on the beach," said the criminal complaint, which was filed last week.
Zhao is in federal custody on $250,000 bond. The FBI says at the time of Zhao's arrest he was in the US illegally, his visa having expired about a week before. The man entered the US legally, according to local police.
He faces one charge for taking pictures and one charge for trespassing. At worst, Zhao may face 18 months of prison if convicted on both counts.
In 2014, a New York woman successfully won $1.12 million in compensation damages after she was arrested for taking pictures at an Air National Guard Base. The woman was taking pictures of a decorated helicopter on display for a "Support Our Troops" website while visiting a base on Long Island, according a report by the Guardian.
Officers threatened to arrest the photographer, Nancy Genovese, on terrorism charges, saying that they would make an example of her for other "right wingers" to take notice, according to her attorney.
"Ms. Genovese was subjected to a level of abuse because they did not share the same political views as she did and saw this as an excuse to deny her even the most basic civil rights," said civil rights lawyer Fred Brewington at the time of the trial. The 58-year-old woman was jailed for four days before posting bail and eventually having trespassing charges against her dropped.
Genovese was relieved "the jury heard the truth and that I now have had the chance to clear my name. If this can happen to me, and officers can abuse their power like this, I can only imagine how other people who are not as fortunate as me have been treated."