Australia Criticizes China Decision to Bar Envoy From Spy Trial

A woman holds a Chinese national flag. (Photographer: Paul Yeung/Bloomberg)

Australia Criticizes China Decision to Bar Envoy From Spy Trial

China’s move to close the espionage trial of Australian writer Yang Hengjun is “deeply regrettable,” Canberra’s ambassador said outside a courthouse in Beijing, a sign of the simmering tensions between the nations.

“The reason given was because of the pandemic situation but the Foreign Ministry has also told us that it was because this is a national security case,” diplomat Graham Fletcher said Thursday morning at Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court. “This is deeply regrettable and concerning.”

Fletcher added that “regardless of what happens today, we will continue to advocate strongly on behalf of Dr. Yang, his interests and his rights.”

Australia Criticizes China Decision to Bar Envoy From Spy Trial

Ties between Beijing and Canberra have been deteriorating recently, plumbing new depths since China blocked or tariffed a series of imports from Australia, which has sought an inquiry into the origins of the pandemic.

Individuals found guilty of spying face sentences of three years to life in prison under Chinese law.

There was a heavy police presence outside the courthouse starting early in the day. Journalists from Western nations, Japan and elsewhere gathered near the building, where policemen stopped reporters to ask for passports and press credentials.

Australia Criticizes China Decision to Bar Envoy From Spy Trial

One officer told Bloomberg News it was against the law to interview passersby in the street.

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Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne earlier complained about Yang’s treatment, citing worries about “the lack of procedural fairness.” The Chinese embassy in Australia responded by calling Payne’s statement “deplorable.”

Payne had called on China to let Australian diplomats attend the trial, citing a bilateral treaty on consular relations. China held the one-day trials of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in private earlier this year. The courts said at the time they involved state secrets.

The head of Amnesty International’s China team, Joshua Rosenzweig, said in a statement this week that the charges against Yang “appear to be a politically motivated prosecution for articles he wrote that were critical of the Chinese government.”

“This is an outrageous attack on his right to freedom of expression,” Rosenzweig said.

Yang’s rights are being fully protected, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular press briefing in Beijing.

“The case involves state secrets, therefore it is perfectly reasonable and lawful that it was not heard openly and no one was allowed to observe,” he said. “China firmly rejects Australia’s groundless moves to disrupt its handling of the case in accordance with the law and to meddle in our judicial sovereignty.”

Yang, a Chinese-born Australian national who’s also known as Yang Jun, became well-known as a writer and commentator in China. He was detained in Guangzhou in January 2019 after flying from the U.S., and his arrest on spying allegations was formally announced that August. Yang was indicted in October last year.

Australia Criticizes China Decision to Bar Envoy From Spy Trial

In February, Canada rallied 57 other mainly Western nations including Australia to sign a declaration against the use of what it said are arbitrary detentions. Beijing dismissed the move as “megaphone diplomacy.”

China formally arrested Cheng Lei, an Australian citizen and former news anchor for Chinese state television, in February on national security charges after six months in detention.

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