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China gives Yang Jun, dual Australian national and dissident writer, suspended death sentence for espionage

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Beijing — Chinese-Australian dissident writer Yang Jun was Monday handed a suspended death sentence for espionage in China, Beijing said, five years after he was detained on a rare visit to his homeland.

The Chinese-born Australian citizen has been in jail since 2019 on spying allegations and is said to be in ill health.

Yang found guilty of spying

The writer, whose pen name is Yang Hengjun, has denied the allegations, telling supporters he was tortured at a secret detention site and that he feared forced confessions may be used against him.

His sentencing is one of China's heaviest in a public trial for espionage in years.

Yang, who gained a huge following in exile for his spy novels and calls for greater freedom in his homeland, was sentenced by a Beijing court Monday "in an espionage case," the foreign ministry said.

"It found that Yang Jun was guilty of espionage, sentenced him to death with a two-year suspended execution, and confiscated all his personal property," foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.

Australia "appalled at this outcome"

Canberra has condemned the death sentence, which it said could be commuted to life in jail after a period of two years, during which time Yang would remain imprisoned.

A Chinese paramilitary police officer stands guard outside the Australian embassy in Beijing, Feb. 5, 2024. PEDRO PARDO/AFP/Getty

"The Australian government is appalled at this outcome," Foreign Minister Penny Wong told a news conference. "We will be communicating our response in the strongest terms."

Wong said the Chinese ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, would be summoned to hear the government's objection.

"I want to acknowledge the acute distress that Dr. Yang and his family will be feeling today, coming after years of uncertainty," she said.

Yang's verdict and sentence had been repeatedly delayed since his closed-door trial on national security charges in May 2021, she said, adding that Canberra had consistently called for "basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment."

"Australia will not relent in advocacy for justice for Dr. Yang's interests and wellbeing including appropriate medical treatment," the minister said. "All Australians want to see Dr. Yang reunited with his family."

China and Australia's strained ties

The suspended death sentence will be seen as a setback in Australia-China relations, which had appeared to be warming.

Australian journalist Cheng Lei was released in October after more than three years' detention on espionage charges widely seen as politically motivated.

Yang's friends said last year that he feared he would die in jail without proper medical treatment because of a cyst growing on his kidney.

"If something happens with my health and I die in here, people outside won't know the truth," he said in a note shared with friends and supporters. "If something happens to me, who can speak for me?"

Human Rights Watch also condemned the "catastrophic" sentencing.

"After years of arbitrary detention, allegations of torture, a closed and unfair trial without access to his own choice of lawyers — a sentence as severe as this is alarming," Human Rights Watch's Australia director Daniela Gavshon said.

Tension between Canberra and Beijing mounted in 2018 when Australia excluded the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from its 5G network.

Then in 2020, Australia called for an international investigation into the origins of COVID-19 —  an action China saw as politically motivated.

In response, Beijing slapped high tariffs on key Australian exports, including barley, beef and wine, while halting its coal imports.

Most of those tariffs have been lifted under the current center-left government of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who made a breakthrough trip to Beijing in November 2023, hailing progress as "unquestionably very positive."

Tension remains, however, when it comes to security, as Australia draws closer to the United States in an effort to blunt China's expanding influence in the South Pacific region.

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