Verdict Deferred in Australian Journalist Cheng Lei’s Espionage Trial

At 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, the closed-door national security trial of Australian journalist Cheng Lei began amid heavy security at No. 2 People’s Intermediate Court in Beijing. After roughly three hours, the hearing ended without a verdict, which court officials stated would be announced “at a scheduled date.” Cheng has been in detention since August 2020 and is suspected by the Chinese government of “illegally supplying state secrets overseas.” Austin Ramzy from The New York Times described the outrage of Australia’s ambassador to China, who was denied access to the trial and questioned the legitimacy of the legal proceedings:

The Chinese authorities have not released the details of their allegations against the journalist, Cheng Lei, nor have her lawyers or family disclosed any specifics. Australia’s ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher, was not allowed to attend Ms. Cheng’s trial at the No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court in Beijing.

“We can have no confidence in the validity of a process which is conducted in secret,” Mr. Fletcher said after being denied entry.

Court officials cited Chinese restrictions on access to proceedings involving national security, but Mr. Fletcher said Australia’s consular agreement with China should allow diplomats to attend any trial of an Australian national. 

“We have no information about the charges or allegations against Ms. Cheng,” he said. “That is part of the reason why we’re so concerned, because we have no basis on which to understand why she’s been detained.” [Source]

Cheng, 46, was born in Hunan, China, and emigrated to Australia with her parents when she was a child. After working as a business analyst and consultant, she moved back to China to work in the media, first at CNBC Asia in 2003, and then as a business news anchor for Chinese state-media group CGTN in 2012. In August 2020, the Australian government announced it had been notified by Chinese authorities that Cheng had been detained, but provided no further explanation. She was then held held for six months in residential surveillance at a designated location (RSDL), a practice that human rights groups argue amounts to state-sanctioned kidnapping and torture, and that prohibits visits by lawyers or family. In February 2021, she was formally arrested “on suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets to foreign forces.” 

After her detention, posts emerged on Chinese social media vilifying Cheng for being a “spy” and “betraying the motherland.” Evidence of her work with CGTN was systematically scrubbed from the CGTN website and from social media, despite her prominent role in the organization. In her Twitter bio, Cheng had referred to herself as “a passionate orator of the #China story.”

Cheng arrived at the courthouse in full PPE that obscured her demeanor. At a press conference later that day, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin attempted to justify the secret nature of the trial and to deflect foreign criticism:

Pursuant to the Criminal Procedure Law of the People’s Republic of China, cases involving national secrets shall not be tried in an open court and no one should sit in. Australian citizen Cheng Lei is suspected of illegally providing state secrets to foreign forces. So this is a case involving state secrets. Therefore, holding a closed-door trial by the relevant court is legitimate, lawful, and beyond reproach.

China is a country under rule of law. The Chinese judicial authorities try cases in strict accordance with law and fully protect the litigation rights of relevant individuals. Relevant sides should earnestly respect China’s judicial sovereignty, and refrain from interfering in the law-based handling of the case by Chinese judicial authorities in any form. [Source]

Al Jazeera described Cheng’s strong international support among media groups that also challenged the Chinese government’s justification for her detention:

In a joint statement, Australia’s Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, the International Federation of Journalists, the Australian National Press Club and its United States counterpart said Cheng was being held on “dubious charges that have yet to be substantiated with any evidence”.

“We have urged the Chinese government to show compassion by allowing her to return to Australia and we condemn her arbitrary detention and the secretive trial process she has endured,” the statement said. [Source]

Since her arrest, Cheng has been able to choose her lawyers for the trial, with whom she met as recently as Monday, and to hold monthly virtual visits with Australian consular officers. As reported by the Financial Times, “A person briefed on the visits said Cheng was sometimes brought into the room with a hood over her head and strapped to a chair with a board across her lap.” Ambassador Fletcher stated that, considering the circumstances, she was “doing okay,” and her lawyer stated that she was in good health and good spirits. Cheng also has had access to books donated by friends, including one for learning Spanish, and has been allowed to watch the Beijing Olympics. However, she has been allowed only written contact with her family since her detention almost 20 months ago. “Her two children and elderly parents miss her immensely and sincerely hope to reunite with her as soon as possible,” her family said in a statement.

It is not clear how long Cheng will have to wait until sentencing. In a separate case at the same courthouse in May 2021, Australian spy novelist (and former Chinese diplomat) Yang Hengjun was tried on a similar espionage charge after being held for two years in detention. The Australian ambassador was barred from attending Yang’s trial, and Yang remains in custody to this day, awaiting sentencing. Both Yang and Cheng’s trials recall the detentions of Canadians Michael Spavor and Micheal Kovrig, who were held in China for nearly three years on espionage charges. Spavor had been sentenced to 11 years in prison and Kovrig was awaiting sentencing when they were both freed in exchange for Huawei CFO Meng Wangzhou, which many viewed as proof of Beijing’s “hostage diplomacy.” Helen Davidson from The Guardian described the uncertain and potentially perilous future that lies ahead for Cheng:

China’s judicial system has a conviction rate of more than 99%. National security trials are often conducted quickly and in secret, with verdicts and sentences announced unpredictably, sometimes months after trial.

The charge Cheng is facing usually carries a sentence of five-10 years but, depending on how severe the court deems the accusation, she could receive any term – from time served, to life in prison. [Source]

Mike Gow offered an informative Twitter thread explaining the nature of the legal proceedings in Cheng’s case and how that affects the verdict:

Increased tensions between Australia and China may have played a role in Cheng’s detention. In June 2020, weeks before Cheng was detained, Xinhua reported that Australian authorities raided the homes of Australia-based Chinese state-media workers as part of an investigation into foreign interference. Then, in September 2020, two Australian journalists, Bill Birtles and Michael Smith, fled China after state security officers questioned them about Cheng; both denied having any close connection with her. To avoid detention, Birtles took refuge in the Australian embassy in Beijing and Smith hid in the Australian consulate in Shanghai, after which they managed to escape, leaving no accredited Australian journalists left in mainland China. Mere hours after the two journalists safely returned to Australia, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson revealed for the first time that Cheng was being held on national security charges. Other recent incidents have further eroded the Sino-Australian bilateral relationship, including a trade war, the banning of Chinese telecom company Huawei from Australia’s 5G network, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s calls to investigate the origins of COVID-19; and geopolitical jostling over military influence in the Pacific

Numerous other journalists have been detained by Chinese authorities on trumped-up national security charges. Haze Fan, a Chinese news assistant for Bloomberg and friend of Cheng Lei, was detained in early December 2021 for allegedly jeopardizing national security. It is not clear whether their arrests are connected, although Fan’s coverage was also business-focused. Prominent journalist and #MeToo activist Huang Xueqin was detained in September 2021, along with her friend and workers’ rights advocate Wang Jianbing, and subsequently charged with “inciting subversion of state power.” Citizen journalist and RSF Press Freedom laureate Zhang Zhan was arrested in December 2020 and sentenced to four years in prison for her reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic. As all of these citizens have been subject to RSDL, human rights organizations have renewed calls for China to abolish this inhumane practice. 



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