Yang Hengjun has been held since arriving in China in January 2019 and has had no access to family and only limited contact with his lawyer, the Australian government has said.
Ambassador Graham Fletcher walked to the south gate of the court complex in Beijing and then came back out after he had been denied access. The government had been told earlier that a representative would not be allowed to attend the trial because it is a national security case.
“This is deeply regrettable and concerning and unsatisfactory,” he told reporters.
“We’ve had longstanding concerns about this case including lack of transparency and therefore have concluded that it’s an arbitrary detention.”
Authorities have not released any details of the charges against Mr Yang, a novelist who according to some unverified reports formerly worked for China’s Ministry of State Security as an intelligence agent.
Mr Fletcher said China has only said that the charge against Mr Yang involves espionage. He said Australian diplomats last met with him via video link last month and were able to convey messages to and from his family. Mr Yang appeared to be in satisfactory health and had access to legal representation, Mr Fletcher said.
Australia would continue to “advocate strongly” for Mr Yang and did not see a link between his case and the overall state of ties with China, Mr Fletcher said.
Mr Yang has denied the accusations against him, and while a conviction is virtually certain, it wasn’t clear when a verdict would be handed down. The espionage charge carries a sentence from three years in prison to the death penalty.
In comments believed to have been dictated to diplomats in March and reproduced in Australian media, Mr Yang said the lack of fresh air and sunshine had taken a toll on his health but that spiritually, “I’m still strong.”
“There is nothing more liberating than having one’s worst fears realised,” he said.
The trial comes at a time of deteriorating relations between the two countries, brought on by Chinese retaliation against Australia’s legislation against foreign involvement in its domestic politics, the exclusion of telecommunications giant Huawei from its 5G phone network, and calls for an independent investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak that was first detected in China in late 2019.
Beijing has essentially suspended all but the most routine contacts between the sides, while state media and the Foreign Ministry routinely attack Australia as adopting anti-Chinese policies at the behest of the United States, China’s main geopolitical rival.
China has blocked Australian exports including beef, wine, coal, lobsters, wood and barley. However, Australia’s most lucrative export, iron ore, still has eager buyers among Chinese steel manufacturers.
A close family friend, Feng Chongyi, recently described the case against Mr Yang as “fabricated … for political persecution and political purposes and I have never had any illusion for a fair trial.”
“Given Beijing’s determination to punish him and the current bad relations between Australia and China, I am deeply concerned that Yang’s sentence will be harsh,” Mr Feng said.