SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia strongly objects to the formal indictment of Chinese-Australian writer Yang Hengjun for espionage , who continues to be held in “unacceptable” conditions, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Wednesday.
Yang, a former Chinese diplomat turned online journalist and blogger, was formally arrested in August 2019 on suspicion of espionage, seven months after he was originally detained in the southern city of Guangzhou.
Espionage is punishable by death in China.
Australia denies that Yang has ever spied for them.
Already strained by Australia’s decision to prohibit Huawei from its 5G broadband network and Canberra’s allegations that Beijing is meddling in its domestic affairs – the detention of Yang has added to tensions.
Payne said Yang should be immediately released.
“The government strongly objects to the formal indictment of Australian citizen and academic Dr Yang Hengjun in China on suspicion of espionage,” Payne said in an emailed statement.
Payne said Australian consular officials have been denied access to Yang since the end of 2019, which she described as unacceptable.
In December, Payne said Yang was being shackled in his prison cell.
The Chinese embassy in Canberra was not immediately available for comment but has in the past denied that Yang is being mistreated.
Previous diplomatic spats have resulted in disruptions to exports of coal and wine.
China is Australia’s largest trading partner, but Canberra has become increasingly wary about Beijing’s influence within Australia and across the Pacific.
Reuters last year reported Canberra had determined that Beijing was responsible for a cyber-attack on Australia’s parliament and three largest political parties, just months out from an election.
Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan & Simon Cameron-Moore