Australian writer accused of espionage to go on trial in China

There was heavy security outside the courtroom, with the area around the entrance cordoned off with tape and large numbers of police deployed
There was heavy security outside the courtroom, with the area around the entrance cordoned off with tape and large numbers of police deployed NICOLAS ASFOURI AFP
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Beijing (AFP)

Australian academic Yang Jun was due to go on trial in Beijing on Thursday on espionage charges after spending more than two years in detention, in a case that has increased tensions between the two countries.

There was heavy security outside the courtroom on Thursday morning, with the area around the entrance cordoned off with tape and large numbers of police deployed.

Chinese-born Yang -- who also goes by his pen name Yang Hengjun -- is one of two high-profile Australians detained in China on spying.

The relationship between China and Australia has been perforated by spy scandals and trade rows in recent years, with both sides accusing the other of harassing citizens as diplomatic leverage.

Canberra had said it hoped Australian officials would be allowed access to the trial and the process would be conducted in a "transparent and open" way but Ambassador Graham Fletcher was turned away from the courtroom when he arrived on Thursday.

Yang was arrested on a rare return to China from his home in the United States in January 2019, and has denied the charges.

In a letter shared with AFP, Yang said that his health had deteriorated after 26 months "without fresh air or sunshine".

But he also said that he remains "spiritually strong" and vowed to "face suffering and torture with resilience".

"I have no fear now," he said in the message, believed to have been dictated through a consular visitor or lawyer.

"I love you all and I know that I am loved."

Yang said in the message to his supporters that "if the worst comes to the worst, if someone wants to take revenge on me for my writings, please explain to the people inside China what I did, and the significance of my writing to people in China."

Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne told ABC radio Thursday that she hoped Australian officials would be granted access to the trial, adding that "we have not seen any explanation or evidence for the charges that have been brought against him".

"I very much hope that we have a transparent and open process," she said.

Beijing has insisted Yang's rights are being respected and accused Australia of interfering in a Chinese legal case.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries have plummeted since Canberra called for an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, and banned telecoms giant Huawei from building Australia's 5G network.

China has already imposed tariffs or disrupted more than a dozen key industries, decimating exports.

Another Australian, TV anchor Cheng Lei has been held since August accused of "supplying state secrets overseas", while in September two Australian journalists were rushed out of China after police sought to question them.

Beijing has accused Canberra of raiding the homes of Chinese state media journalists as Australia investigates an alleged campaign of covert influence.