A Chinese-born Australian writer held in China since January has been charged with espionage, his lawyer and the Australian government said on Tuesday, Reuters reports.
Yang Hengjun, a former Chinese diplomat turned online journalist and blogger, was said to have been detained in Guangzhou while waiting for a transfer to Shanghai, after flying in from New York. He was later moved to Beijing.
“Dr Yang has been held in Beijing in harsh conditions without charge for more than seven months,” Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne was quoted as saying in a statement.
According to the statement, Yang was formally arrested on suspicion of spying last Friday.
Yang’s wife, who is an Australian permanent resident, has also been barred from leaving China.
China has not allowed Yang access to his lawyers or family since his detention, Payne said.
However, Australian embassy officials have visited Yang seven times since January and were scheduled to meet him again on Tuesday, the government said.
Yang’s Australian lawyer, Robert Stary, said Yang faced one charge of espionage, which Yang intends to deny, but the basis of the charge was unknown.
“We don’t know for instance, whether it’s as a consequence of his writings as a democracy activist, or a blogger or an academic,” Stary told Reuters.
“He’d spent long periods in the US. So we don’t know whether it’s suggested he’s spying for Australia, or the US, or Taiwan or whoever it might be, if that’s the allegation.”
Stary said he wants the Australian government to press for Yang’s release if there is no other evidence against him other than the fact that he is a pro-democracy activist.
Stary has briefed a prominent Australian barrister, Julian McMahon, to represent Yang, hoping he will be able to work with Yang’s Beijing court-appointed lawyer.
Human rights activists urged Canberra to press for Yang’s immediate release.
“We have serious concerns about China’s opaque criminal justice system where suspects face appalling treatment,” Human Rights Watch’s Australia director Elaine Pearson said in a statement.
Feng Chongyi, an academic at the University of Technology in Sydney, said the allegations against his friend were very serious.
“It is absolutely outrageous they can provide no evidence for these politically motivated charges,” Feng told Reuters.
Although Yang’s recent writing has mostly avoided Chinese politics, he became prominent in the early 2000s when he earned the nickname “democracy peddler”, the report noted.