SYDNEY: A Beijing court on Monday (Feb 5) handed Australian writer Yang Hengjun a suspended death sentence on espionage charges, threatening a recent rebound in bilateral ties that followed several years of strained relations between Beijing and Canberra.
The sentence, handed down five years after Yang was detained in China and three years after his closed-door trial on espionage charges, shocked his family and supporters.
It also threatens a recent warming of relations between Australia and China, analysts say, which until late last year had been marred by tensions over trade, COVID-19 and regional security posture.
Yang, a pro-democracy blogger, is an Australian citizen born in China who was working in New York before his arrest at Guangzhou airport in 2019. An employee of China’s Ministry of State Security from 1989-1999, he had been accused of spying for a country China has not publicly identified, and the details of the case against him have not been made public.
Wang Wenbin, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, told reporters in Beijing Yang had been found guilty of espionage and “sentenced to death with two years’ probation, and it was ordered that all his personal properties be confiscated”.
Wang added that “the Australian side” was allowed to sit in on the sentencing and that all procedures were followed.
Sydney-based scholar Feng Chongyi, who a longtime friend of Wang’s who has followed the trial closely, called it a “serious case of injustice”, adding that Yang had denied the charges.
“He is punished by the Chinese government for his criticism of human rights abuses in China and his advocacy for universal values such as human rights, democracy and rule of law,” Feng said.
He urged the Australian government to seek medical parole for Yang, saying five years of detention had taken a heavy toll on his health.
Australia is “appalled” at the court’s decision and has called in China’s ambassador, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said.
Wong said the Australian government understood the sentence can be commuted to life imprisonment after two years if the individual does not commit any serious crimes in that period.
“This is harrowing news for Dr Yang, his family and all who have supported him,” she said.
Yang’s family was “shocked and devastated by this news, which comes at the extreme end of worst expectations”, said a family spokesman in Sydney.
His two sons, who live in Australia, wrote to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in October on the eve of his visit to Beijing, urging him to seek Yang’s release on medical grounds.
His supporters have argued Yang should be released on medical parole after he was told last year he had a 10cm cyst on his kidney that may require surgery.
Australia had said it was troubled by repeated delays in Yang’s case, and had advocated for his well-being, including access to medical treatment, “at the highest levels”.
A Beijing court heard Yang’s trial in secret in May 2021 and the case against him has never been publicly disclosed. He has denied working as a spy for Australia or the United States and has denied any wrongdoing in letters to family from jail.
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