Australian Ambassador Denied Entry Into Chinese Trial of Citizen Accused of Espionage

The Australian ambassador to China was denied entry on Thursday to the country's trial of a Chinese Australian writer accused of espionage. Ambassador Graham Fletcher was told by a Chinese representative that he could not attend Yang Hengjun's trial because it was a national security case.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian defended the move and said observers are banned from trials involving state secrets. Meanwhile, Fletcher said, "This is deeply regrettable and concerning and unsatisfactory. We've had long-standing concerns about this case, including lack of transparency, and therefore have concluded that it's an arbitrary detention."

Yang reportedly worked as an intelligence agent for China's Ministry of State Security before becoming a novelist and has denied the allegation against him. He has not seen his family since he was detained upon arriving in China in January 2019. His lawyer, Mo Shaoping, said that the trial concluded in the afternoon and that a verdict would be forthcoming.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Australian Ambassador to China Graham Fletcher
A Chinese police officer returns an ID card to Australian Ambassador to China Graham Fletcher as he arrives at the Beijing Second Intermediate People's Court before the trial of Australian academic Yang Jun, also known as Yang Hengjun, on espionage charges in Beijing on May 27. Fletcher was denied entry to Yang's trial. Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images

Yang has had only limited contact with his lawyer, the Australian government has said.

Fletcher walked to the court complex gate in Beijing and returned after he was denied entry, telling journalists it was "regrettable" that diplomats were prevented from observing the trial.

Fletcher said China has only said that the charge against Yang involves espionage.

Authorities have not released any details of the charges against Yang. Yang's lawyer declined further comment, saying that "the case involves state secrets."

While a conviction is virtually certain, it isn't clear when the verdict will be handed down. The espionage charge carries penalties ranging from three years in prison to the death penalty.

In comments believed to have been dictated to diplomats in March and reproduced in Australian media, Yang said the lack of fresh air and sunshine had taken a toll on his health but that spiritually, "I'm still strong."

"There is nothing more liberating than having one's worst fears realized," Yang said.

Fletcher said Australian diplomats last met with Fletcher via video link last month and were able to convey messages to and from his family. Yang appeared to be in satisfactory health, Fletcher said.

Australia will continue to "advocate strongly" for Yang and did not see a link between his case and the overall state of ties with China, Fletcher said.

Lijian said China was following international practice in barring observers from attending a case involving state secrets.

"China is firmly opposed to the Australian side's unwarranted disruption in China's law-based handling of the case and its gross interference with China's judicial sovereignty. We have made serious complaints with the Australian side," Zhao said at a daily briefing.

The trial comes at a time of deteriorating relations between the two countries, brought on by Chinese retaliation against Australian legislation against foreign involvement in its domestic politics, the exclusion of telecommunications giant Huawei from its 5G phone network, and calls for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus outbreak that was first detected in China in late 2019.

Beijing has essentially suspended all but the most routine contacts between the sides, while state media and the Foreign Ministry routinely attack Australia as adopting anti-Chinese policies at the behest of the United States, China's main geopolitical rival.

Australian journalists Michael Smith of the Australian Financial Review and Bill Birtles of the Australian Broadcasting Corp. fled China in September after sheltering in Australian diplomatic compounds following demands for questioning by Chinese authorities. They were allowed to depart China under a deal brokered between the two governments, leaving Australian media without a physical presence in the country.

Before their departure, Chinese police questioned both journalists about Australian citizen Cheng Lei, a business news anchor for CGNT, China's English-language state media channel, who had been detained a month earlier.

China says Cheng has been lawfully detained on suspicion of violating Chinese national security laws.

China has blocked Australian exports including beef, wine, coal, lobsters, wood and barley. However, Australia's most lucrative export, iron ore, still has eager buyers among Chinese steel manufacturers.

Amnesty International's China head, Joshua Rosenzweig, said the allegations against Yang were based on criticism of the Chinese government in articles he published.

"Having reportedly endured hundreds of interrogations and been held in inhumane conditions with severely restricted access to his lawyer, Yang now faces an unfair trial behind closed doors. He remains at grave risk of torture and other ill-treatment," Rosenzweig said in an emailed statement.

Yang's case illustrates how China targets political opponents and human rights activists with its opaque legal system, including detention without notice and secret hearings, Rosenzweig said.

Australian ambassador to China Graham Fletcher
Australian ambassador to China Graham Fletcher, left, is checked by policemen outside the No. 2 Intermediate People's Court as he arrives to attend the espionage charges case for Yang Hengjun, in Beijing, Thursday, May 27, 2021. Fletcher said it was “regrettable” that the embassy was denied access Thursday as a trial was due to start for Yang, a Chinese Australian man charged with espionage. Andy Wong/AP Photo