Australian citizen Yang Hengjun’s trial for spying to start in Beijing

The espionage trial of an Australian writer is set to start Thursday in Beijing, exacerbating fraught diplomatic ties between the nations, Bloomberg reports.

Yang Hengjun’s hearing is expected to be held in Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court, according to a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be publicly identified speaking to the media. Yang was indicted in that court in October last year.

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.

The Australian government said last week the trial date had been set. Individuals found guilty of spying face sentences of three years to life in prison under Chinese law.

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

Payne also 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, 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.

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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