Australia seeks access to trial of academic blogger held in China

Mr Yang Jun is one of two high-profile Australians detained in China on spying allegations amid escalating tensions between Canberra and Beijing. PHOTO: YANGHENGJUN/TWITTER

SYDNEY (AFP) - Chinese-born Australian academic and author Yang Jun will go on trial in China on espionage charges next week, after spending more than two years in detention, Australia's Foreign Minister has confirmed.

Yang is one of two high-profile Australians detained in China on spying allegations amid escalating tensions between Canberra and Beijing.

The trial for Yang, who also goes by his pen name Yang Hengjun, will begin on Thursday, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement late on Friday.

"Despite repeated requests by Australian officials, the Chinese authorities have not provided any explanation or evidence for the charges facing Dr Yang," Ms Payne said.

"We have conveyed to the Chinese authorities, in clear terms, the concerns we have about Dr Yang's treatment and the lack of procedural fairness in how his case has been managed."

Ms Payne also called for Australian officials to be granted access to the trial, criticising a process that she said had so far been "closed and opaque", adding that Yang has had no access to family and "limited, delayed access" to his lawyers since he was detained.

"As a basic standard of justice, access to the trial for observers should be a bare minimum to conform to international norms of transparency," she added.

But the Chinese embassy in Canberra labelled Ms Payne's comments "deplorable" and said Yang's rights were being respected.

"The Australian side should respect China's judicial sovereignty and refrain from interfering in any form in Chinese judicial authorities' lawful handling of the case," an embassy spokesman said in a statement.

Yang, who denies the charges, was arrested on a rare return to China from his home in the United States in January 2019.

"It will be a closed-door trial," Mr Feng Chongyi, a friend and former academic supervisor based in Sydney, told Reuters.

Yang's trial, which had been due to proceed by January, has been delayed by four months.

The 56-year-old pro-democracy blogger faces a lengthy jail sentence after Chinese authorities charged him with endangering national security by joining or accepting a mission from an unidentified espionage organisation.

Yang had told Feng in a 2011 letter that before studying at university in Australia he once worked for China's state security agency for a decade, in Hong Kong and Washington, but left before moving to Australia in 1999.

He later wrote spy novels that were published in Taiwan, and amassed a large online following in China as a democracy blogger before moving to New York.

Another Australian, TV anchor Cheng Lei, has been held since August over accusations of "supplying state secrets overseas".

Diplomatic relations between the two countries have plummeted since Canberra called for an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic and banned telecoms giant Huawei from building Australia's 5G network.

China has already imposed tariffs or disrupted more than a dozen key industries, including wine, barley and coal, decimating exports.

In September, two Australian journalists were rushed out of China after police sought to question them. Beijing has accused Canberra of raiding its journalists' homes as it investigates an alleged campaign of covert influence.

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