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Australian writer given suspended death sentence in China

China's President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China, on March 19, 2017. (State Department/Released)
February 06, 2024

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

A Beijing court on Monday handed down a suspended death sentence to Yang Hengjun, a Chinese-Australian author detained on suspicion of espionage for more than five years without trial, according to media reports. 

Yang, a pro-democracy blogger, is an Australian citizen of Chinese descent who was working in New York before his arrest at Guangzhou airport in 2019. He was accused of espionage on behalf of a nation that China has not disclosed, nor has it made public the details of the case against him. 

Yang’s colleague, Sydney University of Technology professor Feng Chongyi, said a Chinese court had sentenced him to a suspended death sentence that would convert to life imprisonment after two years, which was relayed to his family, Reuters reported on Monday. 

Feng told Reuters that it was a “serious case of injustice,” adding that Yang had denied the charges.

“He is punished by the Chinese government for his criticism of human rights abuses in China and his advocacy for universal values such as human rights, democracy and rule of law,” Feng said, as cited by Reuters.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said on Monday that Australia is “appalled” at the court’s decision and has called in China’s ambassador. 

Wong added that the Australian government understood the sentence can be commuted to life imprisonment after two years if the individual does not commit any serious crimes in that period.

“This is a decision within China’s legal system. Clearly, this is an occasion [on] which we disagree. However, Australia will continue to advocate for the interests of Yang,” she said. “This is harrowing news for Dr. Yang, his family and all who have supported him.”

Separately, a family spokesman in Sydney said Yang’s family was “shocked and devastated by this news, which comes at the extreme end of worst expectations,” according to Reuters.

Born in 1965 in Hubei province, China, Yang worked for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs before moving to Australia and becoming an Australian citizen in 2002. He later lived in the United States, where he became a spy novelist, political commentator and activist in favor of democratization in China.

China released Australian journalist Cheng Lei last year after imprisoning her for three years and there were hopes in Australia that Yang would be released soon as well. However, China’s ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, once said Yang’s case could not be resolved in the same way as Cheng’s.