Australian writer Yang Hengjun is vowing to "fight to the end" after seeing his lawyers for the first time since the Chinese government detained him more than 18 months ago.
In his first comments since April last year, Yang said he would "never confess to something I haven't done" after authorities isolated and allegedly tortured him in an attempt to extract a confession on unspecified claims of espionage.
Australian writer Yang Hengjun, left, was was detained 18 months ago and charged with espionage.Credit:AP
The show of defiance from the Chinese-born Australian citizen comes amid the most politically charged atmosphere between Australia and China in decades and days after it was revealed Australian TV anchor Cheng Lei was being held by Chinese authorities on unknown claims.
Yang, who finished his PhD at Sydney’s University of Technology in 2009, was detained in January last year on suspicion of endangering Chinese national security.
Chinese authorities have spent the past year interrogating the pro-democracy blogger on his Australian, US and Chinese Communist Party connections without a breakthrough. Prior to coming to Australia in 1999, Yang said he worked for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a claim Beijing denies.
In comments to his lawyers and confirmed by sources close to his family, Yang said he wanted to go to court. "This is political persecution," he said. "They can abuse me. I did not confess to anything criminal. I am innocent and will fight to the end."
Yang's friend, UTS professor Feng Chongyi, said he was very proud of his former student.
"He maintained his spirit through torture and isolation," he said. "The Chinese authorities have been throwing everything in their hands to break him but they did not succeed."
Mo Shaoping, Yang's lawyer in China, said he visited the 55-year-old in jail for the first time on Thursday. He said Yang would face a closed-door trial under the espionage charges.
Under China's opaque judicial system, there is still a time limit on how long a person can be held without trial. Yang's case has been handed between Chinese state security organs and the Supreme People's Procuratorate three times since January 2019. Prosecutors now have six weeks left to mount their case.
"In the coming one and a half months, the procuratorate must decide whether it is going to prosecute to the court or not prosecute," Mo said.
Australian consular officials met Yang via video link on Monday after having no contact since December. The delay, which Chinese authorities maintain is due to the coronavirus pandemic, is in breach of Australia's consular agreement with China which allows for monthly visits.
The Australia director of Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, said Yang had been treated appallingly. "There has been no due process. He has faced harsh treatment and no access to a lawyer," she said.
"The Chinese system is really geared around forced confession. This is a system where acquittals are very rare. It is dominated by the Chinese Communist Party with very few checks to stop the abuse of evidence."
The timing of Yang's arrest last year, months after Australia had blocked Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from the local 5G network, and the detention of Cheng, the Australian TV anchor, have raised concerns both moves may be politically motivated.
Australian-Chinese relations have soured since 2018, with multiple disputes over the coronavirus, Beijing's crackdown in Hong Kong, foreign interference and incursions into the South China Sea.
China's Foreign Ministry has accused Australia of being "infected with fear, conjecture and paranoia" and urged Australia to stay out of its domestic policies. "China is a country of rule of law," spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Tuesday night.
Australian officials are still to be notified of the claims against Cheng, a high-profile business reporter with Chinese state media network CGTN who was privately critical of the Chinese Communist Party on Facebook.
Cheng, who came to Australia as a 10-year-old before returning to China in 2002, is being held in an undisclosed location without guaranteed access to legal aid.
Between January and August last year, Yang was held under the same residential surveillance laws, which allow authorities to detain someone without charge for six months.
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