Australia Cites Concerns For Detained Writer's Health In China

Authorities in the Chinese capital have indicted an Australian academic and writer for espionage after holding him incommunicado for seven months with no access to a lawyer or family visits, prompting sharp criticism from Canberra.

Yang Hengjun, an outspoken Australian writer and political commentator who formerly held Chinese nationality, was taken to Beijing by state security police on arriving at Guangzhou Airport on Jan. 19 and placed under “Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location ” (RDSL), a form of forced disappearance, for six months.

The Australian government said it “strongly objects” to the move, which paves the way for a trial, and said Beijing hadn’t responded to its requests for information through formal channels.

“The Australian Government is very disappointed that the Chinese authorities have not yet provided formal advice on Dr Yang’s indictment,” foreign minister Marise Payne said in a statement on her official website.

“Since his detention over a year ago, the Australian Government has repeatedly expressed its strong concern about the treatment of Dr Yang,” Payne said.

“It is not in the spirit of mutual respect and trust that our continued advocacy for Dr Yang has not been acknowledged,” she added.

Payne said there are concerns that Yang’s poor health makes him especially vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Dr Yang has had no access to legal representation and has been held in harsh conditions that have been detrimental to his physical and mental health,” she said.

“In our most recent representations, we appealed for humanitarian considerations to apply to Dr Yang’s situation.”

“We deeply regret that for over a year, our requests have not been taken up.”

No consular visits since late 2019

Yang, 54, was transferred to the Beijing State Security Bureau Detention Center after initially being held in RSDL.

Payne said Australian officials had repeatedly called on Beijing to apply “basic international standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment” to Yang.

But consular officials haven’t been allowed to visit Yang since Dec. 30, and requests for contact by phone or in writing had already been denied, Payne’s statement said.

“This is unacceptable treatment of an Australian citizen,” she said, calling for Yang’s immediate and unconditional release.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Yang was “suspected of engaging in criminal activities that endangers the national security of the People’s Republic of China.”

He said Australia should “cease interfering by any means in China’s handling of legal cases according to law.”

Consular visits would be arranged “after the epidemic situation has improved,” Geng told a regular news briefing in Beijing.

The Chinese Embassy in Canberra said Payne’s statement was “deplorable,” and said the Australian government should stop interfering.

“The Chinese relevant authorities are investigating the case in accordance with Chinese law,” an embassy statement said. “We urge the Australian side to respect China’s judicial sovereignty and refrain from interfering in the legal process in any form.”

Many foreigners detained

The indictment of Yang comes after China has detained or jailed a number of foreign nationals in recent months.

On Feb. 25, a court in the eastern city of Ningbo handed down a 10-year jail term to former Hong Kong bookseller and Swedish national Gui Minhai for “illegally providing intelligence overseas.”

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman also said the case had been “handled according to law” by the Chinese judiciary, in language similar to that employed in Yang’s case.

Gui was one of five Hong Kong-based booksellers detained by the Chinese authorities for selling “banned” political books to customers across the internal border in mainland China in 2015.

He disappeared under murky circumstances from his holiday home in Pattaya, Thailand, in October 2015, only to reappear in China “confessing” on video to a decade-old alleged drunk-driving offense.

More than 10 Canadians were detained in China after the ruling Chinese Communist Party vowed to retaliate for the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, who is wanted for questioning by investigators in the U.S. over alleged bank fraud linked to the breach of sanctions against Iran.

Both the U.S. and Canada upgraded cautionary advice to any of their citizens traveling to China, amid growing calls for the release of former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and consultant Michael Spavor, who were detained on suspicion of “endangering state security” shortly after Meng’s arrest at Vancouver airport at the request of U.S. investigators.

Reported by RFA’s Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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