China charges Australian with espionage, Australia says case lacks merit

Chinese-born Australian writer Yang Hengjun. Image: Facebook

DHARAMSALA, 27 Aug: China has formally charged a Chinese-born Australian writer with espionage after being kept in custody for over six months.

Yang Hengjun, a former Chinese diplomat turned online journalist and blogger, has been formally arrested on suspicion of espionage, the Australian government announced on Tuesday.

“Dr Yang has been held in Beijing in harsh conditions without charge for more than seven months,” Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement according to numerous media reports.

Though the Australian embassy officials were reportedly allowed to visit Yang seven times since January, his lawyers and family were denied visitation since his detention.

Yang was formally arrested on suspicion of spying last Friday, espionage is punishable by death in China.

The arrest of Yang, 53, whose legal name is Yang Jun, came at a time of escalating tension between Canberra and Beijing, the former’s largest trading partner.

Meanwhile, Australia has instated that Yang Hengjun was not a spy for Australia and that his arrest lacks merit.

“There is no basis for any allegation Dr Yang was spying for the Australian government,” the Guardian quoted Australian foreign minister Marise Payne as saying in its report.

Lawyers and campaigners have expressed great concern over the arrest of Yang, who became an Australian citizen in 2002. His wife, who is an Australian permanent resident, has also been barred from leaving China.

Yang has been charged with one act of espionage, but he faces an indefinite wait before even knowing the nature of the allegation against him, the report said citing his Australian lawyer, Robert Stary.

Human Rights Watch Australia director Elaine Pearson has called on the Australian government to build a coalition with other governments whose citizens are detained in China in order to put pressure on Beijing.

Yang is the latest in a string of foreign nationals to be arrested in China and charged with espionage or attempting to steal state secrets.

China has stated that Yang’s arrest had been handled in accordance with the law and that he was in good health while making Beijing’s displeasure abundantly clear about Australia’s “interference” in the case.

A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, Geng Shuang, said Yang’s arrest had been handled in accordance with the law and that he was in good health.

“The Australian side should earnestly respect China’s judicial sovereignty and must not … interfere with a Chinese case,” Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry has said.

Yang was formerly a diplomat for China’s ministry of foreign affairs. Later he worked in the private sector in Hong Kong before moving to the US and then to Australia.

A novelist under the nom de plume Wei Shi, he has been a popular blogger, political commentator and agitator for democratic reforms in China for more than a decade.

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