Australian Blogger on Trial in China Worried Political Tensions May Impact Outcome

May 31, 2021 Updated: May 31, 2021

SYDNEY—Australian blogger Yang Hengjun, who is facing trial in Beijing for alleged espionage charges, has asked the judge to exclude evidence obtained during interrogations in which he says he was tortured, according to a message conveyed to family and friends.

In his first comments since Thursday’s court hearing, which was closed to family and Australian consular officials because China says it involved state secrets, Yang also expressed concern that geopolitical tensions may influence the outcome of his trial.

“If a wrong decision is made because of political pressure or bad international relations, under the pretext of national security, that’s bad,” he said in the message, which was seen by Reuters and verified by a source with knowledge of the matter.

Yang Hengjun photo
Yang Hengjun, author and former Chinese diplomat, who is now an Australian citizen, is pictured in an unspecified location in Tibet, China on July, 2014 in this social media image obtained by Reuters. (Reuters)

Diplomatic ties between Australia and China have deteriorated sharply since Yang was detained in January 2019, with China imposing trade sanctions on some imports from Australia and reacting angrily to its call for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus.

Australia says it has received no explanation for the charges against Yang, and foreign minister Marise Payne on Friday labeled Yang’s case “arbitrary detention” after consular officials visited him in jail.

“I hope Australia can keep communicating with China on good terms to help bring about my release as soon as possible,” Yang said in the message.

Yang said he addressed the court directly for three to five minutes during the six-hour hearing.

“I was tired and confused, and didn’t have the spirit to speak enough,” he said, adding he was satisfied with the defence presented by his lawyers. Human rights lawyers Mo Shaoping and Shang Baojun were appointed by his family but have been forbidden from speaking to anyone about the details of the national security case.

Yang said he had told the judge: “I hope that Chinese rule of law wins.”

Yang said he met the judge on Monday, ahead of the hearing, and made a plea to exclude his interrogation records.

“It’s illegal. Torture. They had hidden camera records,” he said.

Yang was held in residential surveillance at a designated location, a form of informal detention without legal representation, for six months in 2019, and Australia has repeatedly complained about the conditions under which he was held.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment, although its spokesman Zhao Lijian has previously rejected allegations of torture. “All of Yang Hengjun’s lawful rights have been fully guaranteed, and there is no so-called torture or abuse,” he told reporters in December.

Yang said in the message he had “served China when I was young, even secretly, and I helped people”.

Reuters previously reported Yang had told supporters he worked for Chinese security agencies before migrating to Australia in 1999. He later became a high-profile blogger who wrote about Chinese democracy.

In the message released on Sunday, Yang said he doesn’t know which espionage agency he is alleged to have worked for.

“I didn’t work for Australia or the U.S. I’m only writing for people,” he said.

He said he was worried about the case’s outcome and noted a verdict could be delayed by up to two years.

“I’ve already been held in a place worse than prison for over two years now,” he said

On Thursday, China’s foreign ministry said that “judicial authorities handled the case in strict accordance with the law, (and) fully protected Yang Hengjun’s litigation rights.”

Potential penalties in espionage cases range from three years to the death penalty.

By Kirsty Needham