Yang Hengjun stresses innocence, fears deterioration of Australia-China relations affects verdict

On the eve of his trial on espionage charges before Beijing’s Second Intermediate People’s Court last Thursday (May 27), Australian-Chinese author Yang Hengjun asked the judge not to use the interrogation records from his interrogation in China as evidence in court because he had been tortured to extract a confession.

Yang Hengjun also told the judge during the trial that he was concerned about the impact that deteriorating relations between Australia and China might have on the outcome of his trial, Reuters and Australian media reported, citing a message he passed to family and friends after the trial. “It would be bad to hand down a wrong verdict on the pretext of national security due to political pressure or poor international relations,” Yang Hengjun is said to have told the judge.

Chinese authorities had refused to allow Yang’s family or Australian consular officials to attend the court hearing last Thursday on the pretext that state secrets were at stake. Australia’s ambassador to Beijing, Graham Fletcher, arrived at the courthouse door that day and was still turned away. In addition to expressing “deep regret” at being turned away, Fletcher told the media that Yang Hengjun’s case lacked transparency. Australia therefore believes that “this is an arbitrary arrest.”

Yang Hengjun was arrested at the airport in January 2019 while flying from New York to Guangzhou. Chinese authorities have accused Yang Hengjun of espionage, but have never revealed which intelligence agency he worked for or what kind of espionage missions he received against China. Yang has consistently denied the “espionage” charges against him, stressing his innocence. In the more than two years since Yang’s arrest, Australia-China relations have continued to deteriorate. Australia’s exclusion of Huawei from its 5G network on national security grounds had caused strong resentment in China and led to a series of Chinese trade sanctions against Australia. Australia’s forceful call for an investigation into the source of the new Kuan virus has even angered the authorities in Beijing.

“I hope Australia will continue to communicate well with China so that I can be released as soon as possible,” Yang Hengjun said in a message sent to his family and friends. Yang Hengjun also said he had a chance to speak directly in court for three to five minutes during the six-hour session last Thursday. “I was so tired and groggy that I simply didn’t have the energy to say more,” he said. But he was quite satisfied with the defense lawyers, Mo Shaoping and Shang Baojun, who defended him in court. Mo Shaoping and Shang Baojun are human rights lawyers hired by his family for Yang Hengjun, but Chinese authorities have forbidden the two defense lawyers from disclosing the facts of the national security case to anyone.

Yang Hengjun said he told the judge in court, “I hope that the rule of law in China will win the case.” Yang Hengjun said he met with the judge three days before the trial, on May 24. He had appealed to the judge to exclude his interrogation records from evidence. “This is illegal torture to extract a confession. They also used hidden cameras to make records,” Yang Hengjun told the judge.

In a message released Sunday (May 30), Yang Hengjun also said, “I used to serve China when I was young, even secretly, and I helped people.” Yang Hengjun had told supporters that he had worked for Chinese security agencies before immigrating to Australia in 1999. He later became famous for writing and shouting for democracy in China.

Yang Hengjun said he had no idea which spy agency he was accused of serving. “This is not an ideological crime. The charge is espionage, but who am I spying for?” He said, “I didn’t work for Australia or the United States, I just wrote for the people.” Yang Hengjun expressed concern about the outcome of his trial on espionage charges. He said sentencing is likely to drag on for two years. “I’ve been in a place worse than prison for more than two years.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian had told a regular press conference in Beijing last Thursday after Yang Hengjun’s trial began that the Chinese judiciary fully guaranteed all of Yang Hengjun’s procedural rights and fully respected and implemented the Australian side’s consular rights such as visiting and getting notification. Zhao Lijian claimed that according to Chinese law, cases related to state secrets are not heard in public and no one is allowed to observe, “which is also the common practice in many countries. Under current Chinese law, sentences in espionage cases start at three years in prison and can range up to the death penalty upon conviction.