Australian writer Yang Hengjun has received a suspended death sentence from a Chinese court, marking the culmination of a five-year ordeal since his arrest on charges of spying.
According to Australian officials, there is a possibility that the sentence could be changed to life imprisonment after two years.
Dr Yang, a scholar and novelist who frequently discussed Chinese state affairs on his blog, has vehemently denied the charges, which have not been disclosed to the public.
The Australian government expresses deep disappointment with the outcome.
Following a significant visit to China by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in the past year, efforts were made to enhance relations that had been declining in recent times.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong has requested a meeting with China’s Ambassador to Australia to seek clarification. She emphasised that the government will express its concerns to Beijing firmly.
“In a statement, she emphasised the importance of upholding basic standards of justice, procedural fairness, and humane treatment for Dr. Yang, in line with international norms and China’s legal obligations.”
“It is a shared desire among Australians to witness the reunion of Dr Yang with his family. We will continue to persist in our advocacy.
Australian officials have expressed their concerns about his treatment in the past, but China’s foreign ministry has cautioned them against interfering in the case and urged them to respect the nation’s “judicial sovereignty”.
According to Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin, Dr Yang’s case has been thoroughly addressed in accordance with the law, ensuring that his legal and consular rights were respected.
Supporters of Dr Yang have characterised his detention as an act of political persecution.
“He has faced consequences from the Chinese government due to his outspokenness against human rights abuses in China and his unwavering support for universal values like human rights, democracy, and the rule of law,” shared his friend, Feng Chongyi, a Sydney academic, in an interview with the BBC.
Dr Yang, who previously worked for China’s Ministry of State Security, earned the nickname “democracy peddler” due to his thought-provoking writings that skillfully navigated around direct criticisms of the government.
In January 2019, he travelled to Guangzhou with his wife and her child, who are Chinese citizens, on a visa run. However, upon his arrival at the airport, he was intercepted.
The 58-year-old’s case has largely developed away from public view since then, including a trial held in private in 2021.
According to Elaine Pearson, the Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, there are numerous concerns about due process in his case, and the result is extremely shocking.
“He has experienced delays and restrictions in obtaining legal representation, a trial conducted in secrecy – and Yang himself has claimed to have been subjected to torture and coerced into making confessions during his interrogations,” she informed the BBC.
According to Ms Wong, Dr Yang still has options for appeal. However, his sons based in Australia have expressed concerns about his declining health and lack of medical care.
Prior to Mr Albanese’s visit to Beijing last November, Dr Yang’s sons reached out to the prime minister, seeking assistance in securing their father’s release due to his deteriorating health.
The detention of the individual, along with the Australian journalist in 2020, had a negative impact on the relationship between Beijing and Canberra. However, the change of government in Australia in 2022 has helped to stabilise the relations between the two countries.
According to Lowy Institute senior fellow Richard McGregor, the recent sentence given to Dr. Yang is expected to have a significant impact on the relationship between the two countries.
“The wide screen reveals the true nature of the Chinese legal system – its lack of transparency, resistance to reasonable requests from foreign governments for their citizens, and its harsh treatment of those who dare to question it,” he remarked.
“This sentence is incredibly surprising and far beyond any expectations.” It is evident that he will spend the rest of his life behind bars.