Australia seeks access to trial of blogger held in China, says foreign minister

Yang Hengjun has denied the charges in statements previously released to his family, who have been unable to visit him since he was arrested in January 2019 after arriving at Guangzhou airport from New York. — Oriental Images via Reuters
Yang Hengjun has denied the charges in statements previously released to his family, who have been unable to visit him since he was arrested in January 2019 after arriving at Guangzhou airport from New York. — Oriental Images via Reuters

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SYDNEY, May 22 — Australia has asked for its officials to be given access to the trial of an Australian pro-democracy blogger detained for two years in Beijing on spying charges when he goes to court on May 27.

In a statement, Foreign Minister Marise Payne confirmed Australia had been notified by Chinese officials that Yang Hengjun will face trial next Thursday.

“This has been a closed and opaque process to date. As a basic standard of justice, access to the trial for observers should be a bare minimum to conform to international norms of transparency,” Payne said in a statement.

She added that Chinese authorities have not provided any explanation or evidence for the charges against Yang to Australian officials.

China’s embassy to Australia said today it felt regret about the statement from Payne.

“Chinese judicial organs handle cases in accordance with the law and fully protect the legal rights of relevant personnel,” it said on its website.

“Australia should respect China’s judicial sovereignty, and must not interfere in the handling of cases by Chinese judicial organs in any form.”

Yang has denied the charges in statements previously released to his family, who have been unable to visit him since he was arrested in January 2019 after arriving at Guangzhou airport from New York.

“It will be a closed-door trial,” Feng Chongyi, a friend and former academic supervisor based in Sydney, told Reuters.

Yang’s trial, which had been due to proceed by January, has been delayed by four months.

The 56-year-old pro-democracy blogger faces a lengthy jail sentence after Chinese authorities charged him with endangering national security by joining or accepting a mission from an unidentified espionage organisation.

Yang has had no access to family and “limited, delayed access” to his lawyers since he was detained, Payne said.

Diplomatic relations between Australia and China have deteriorated in the past 18 months, after Australia called for an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic and barred Chinese company Huawei from its 5G network.

China has imposed a series of trade sanctions on Australian products, but it is reliant on Australian iron ore imports.

Yang told Feng in a 2011 letter that before studying at university in Australia he had once worked for China’s state security agency for a decade, in Hong Kong and Washington, but left before moving to Australia in 1999.

He later wrote spy novels that were published in Taiwan, and amassed a large online following in China as a democracy blogger before moving to New York. — Reuters

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