Australian writer refused to plead guilty to espionage charges after being detained for 19 months in China

On Thursday, Australian writer Yang Hengjun was able to meet his lawyers for the first time since he was detained by the Chinese government more than 19 months ago. His lawyer, Shang Baojun said Yang dismissed the Chinese government’s claim that he had pleaded guilty to espionage charges. “Yang refused to plead guilty to the charges against him, and he thinks that he hasn’t committed espionage,” said Shang.

Yang also told Shang that he had been interrogated more than 300 times during the last 19 months, and sometimes he would be brought to meetings with handcuffs and being blindfolded. “I will never own up to something that I haven’t done,” Yang reportedly told Shang.

Before the COVID19 pandemic hit the world, Australia’s consular agreement mandates monthly consular meetings with Yang. Shang said when he saw Yang on Thursday, Yang showed up with handcuffs, a mask, a reading glasses and a protective goggles. “We couldn’t really see his expressions, and we weren’t really sure about his physical conditions,” Shang said. “However, his mental state seemed to be ok.”

Detained with five other people and allowed to shower twice a week

A few days prior to his first meeting with his lawyers, Yang was still being interrogated. Police would ask him the same questions repeatedly and the interrogation would last up to five hours each day. It can sometimes continue for 20 days. The police asked him about the political activities that he had joined in Australia, the U.S. and China.

Yang is detained with four other people in the same cell and authorities at the prison kept the light in the cell on at all times. Yang has access to food and water, and he can buy books to read. He is sleeping on a wooden platform, and he is allowed to shower twice a week. Yang said his physical health remains ok, but he has issues with his blood pressure and prostate before his detention. He said he felt really isolated from the world.

In March, the Chinese Foreign Ministry reportedly told the Australian Embassy in Beijing that Yang had confessed to espionage, but Yang rejected such claim. “I hope to be able to show up in court for my trial, as I worried the Chinese government would create rumors under the condition that no local media could report about my case,” Yang said. “They can’t create such rumor because I didn’t confess any crime.”

Yang believes that he is innocent and the charges against him is part of a political oppression.

A challenging process to fulfill the first meeting

Yang’s lawyer said since China’s criminal law is very different from the regular criminal law that is widely adopted internationally, defendants need to seek approval from relevant authorities before they can schedule a meeting with their lawyer during the investigative process.

“Yang’s case was in investigative process since his arrest until March 23, 2020, and relevant authorities didn’t approve our request to meet him during that period,” Shang said. “Theoretically speaking, we should be able to meet him whenever we want after March 23, but since it was during the height of the COVID19 pandemic in China, the detention center kept postponing our request to meet Yang. Even though they didn’t violate the law for doing that during the pandemic, refusing to let us meet Yang for more than 19 months is still a very terrible thing.”

After meeting Yang on Thursday, Shang immediately applied for the next meeting. Since the detention center requires anyone who wishes to visit an imprisoned individual to show the proof of their COVID19 nucleic acid test, Shang hopes he will be able to meet Yang again before September 8th as the proof of his test will expire after that day.

“We hope to meet him again next Monday, because the proof of our nucleic acid test is only valid for seven days,” Shang explained. “My proof expires on September 8th and I will need to spend another $120 RMB to get another test if I want to meet Yang again after that date.”

Australia issued travel warning to China

According to the Guardian, sources said Yang had been completely isolated since he was arrested, as he was not allowed to make phone calls, correspond with the outside world or have consular visits. Messages from his family and friends were also not passed to him. He was repeatedly told that he would face execution and that his country has abandoned him while his friends and family have betrayed him.

Yang is not the only Australian citizen that is currently detained in China. Cheng Lei, an Australian anchor for China’s CGTN, was arrested earlier this week. Another Australian guy, Karm Gilespie, was sentenced to death in June for smuggling drugs. However, Gilespie’s friend thinks he had been set up.

In July, the Australian government updated the information for Australians traveling to China, warning them that they could face increased risks of arbitrary detention.

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.