6 February 2024

Appalling development as Australian Yang Hengjun is given suspended death sentence in China

| Andrew McLaughlin
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Yang Hengjun

Foreign Minister Senator Penny Wong said she is appalled by Dr Yang’s sentence. Image: Screenshot.

An Australian academic, writer and democracy activist who has been in detention in China for five years has been given a suspended death sentence by the Chinese Communist Party.

The sentence of Yang Hengjun was announced over the weekend and caught the Australian Government off guard, especially in light of an apparent softening of diplomatic and trade tensions and rhetoric between Australia and China in recent months.

Foreign Minister Senator Penny Wong said she was appalled at the sentence, even though it can be commuted to life imprisonment after two years if Dr Yang does not commit any serious crimes during that time.

“This is harrowing news for Dr Yang, his family and all who have supported him,” Senator Wong said yesterday (5 February).

“Our thoughts are with them.

“I acknowledge the acute distress they will all be feeling after many years of uncertainty.”

Dr Yang was detained in January 2019 on unspecified national security charges. He finally went to trial in May 2021, but since that time, a verdict and sentence have been repeatedly delayed.

READ ALSO Hard work bringing Australia and China back on better ground

Senator Wong and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese both made representations for his release during visits to China in 2023.

With the warming of relations and the October 2023 release of Australian broadcaster Cheng Lei, who had been held in solitary confinement for three years for supposedly breaking a news embargo, hopes were high of a favourable outcome for Dr Yang.

“The Australian Government has advocated for Dr Yang with China at every opportunity and at the highest levels,” Senator Wong said.

“We have consistently called for basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment for Dr Yang, in accordance with international norms and China’s legal obligations.”

Senator Wong reportedly summoned China’s ambassador to Australia Xiao Qin to Canberra’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) building yesterday afternoon for an explanation.

The issue is likely to be a real baptism of fire for Australia’s new ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, Scott Dewar. Mr Dewar’s appointment was announced in October and he has just taken over from former Ambassador Graham Fletcher.

Dr Yang was born in China in 1965 but became an Australian citizen in 2002 after studying philosophy at the University of Technology Sydney. He returned to China to work in 2003, and despite reports he worked for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Reuters reported in 2019 that China denies the ministry had ever employed him.

He has written spy novels and has also been openly critical of China’s crackdowns on democracy.

READ ALSO New Australian ambassadorial appointments announced for strategic outposts including China and Russia

Dr Yang is reported to be unwell with a kidney cyst, for which he is not receiving the appropriate treatment. In an October 2023 letter to the Prime Minister from his sons, they said there was a narrow window of opportunity to secure Dr Yang’s release before his condition worsens.

“The risk of being left to die from medical maltreatment is especially clear to our father because he has seen it happen to his friends,” they wrote.

“We request that you do all in your power to save our father’s life and return him immediately to family and freedom in Australia.”

They told the Prime Minister that Dr Yang had been subjected to more than 300 interrogations over 18 months, including six months of intense torture.

“They deprived him of sleep, strapped his wrists and ankles and pinned him to a chair for days at a time until he couldn’t walk.”

The sentencing comes just after the fifth anniversary of his detention.

“The Australian Government remains deeply troubled by the ongoing delays in his case,” Senator Wong said on 19 January.

“I want to acknowledge the strength that Dr Yang has demonstrated and the strength of his family and friends. Our thoughts are with them all.”

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