Yang Hengjun Given Suspended Death Sentence; Li Qiaochu Sentenced to Over Three Years in Prison

Last week ended with revelations about the mass incarceration of elderly Uyghur women for alleged “crimes” committed decades before their detention. This week began with more news about the weaponization of the Chinese legal system against those deemed—with little to no public evidence—to have acted against the state’s interests. As Kirsty Needham and Laurie Chen from Reuters reported, Australian writer Yang Hengjun was given an extreme sentence for alleged espionage

A Beijing court on Monday handed Australian writer Yang Hengjun a suspended death sentence on espionage charges, threatening a recent rebound in bilateral ties that followed several years of strained relations between Beijing and Canberra.

The sentence, handed down five years after Yang was detained in China and three years after his closed-door trial on espionage charges, shocked his family and supporters.

[…] Yang, a pro-democracy blogger, is an Australian citizen born in China who was working in New York before his arrest at Guangzhou airport in 2019. An employee of China’s Ministry of State Security from 1989-1999, he had been accused of spying for a country China has not publicly identified, and the details of the case against him have not been made public. [Source]

Yang Hengjun was detained in Guangzhou in January 2019 and held in “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL) for six months. After two years in detention, he underwent a closed-door trial and was charged with espionage, without any public evidence presented. In detention, he was reportedly tortured, and since last August he has expressed fear of dying in detention after the discovery of a 10-centimeter cyst on his kidney. His sentence this week “is the latest example of the Chinese government’s use of blatantly unjust and disproportionate legal penalties as a means of controlling and intimidating writers, artists, and other cultural workers who dare express dissident views,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Director of Writers At Risk. Tiffanie Turnbull from the BBC shared other criticism about the lack of proper due process in Yang’s case

Human Rights Watch Asia Director Elaine Pearson said his case has raised a “myriad” of due process concerns and the outcome is “outrageous”.

“He has had delayed and limited access to legal representation, a closed door trial – and Yang himself has alleged torture and forced confessions during his interrogations,” she told the BBC.

[…] “It displays on a wide screen the opacity of the Chinese legal system, its imperviousness to reasonable requests by foreign governments on behalf of their citizens, and its vindictiveness to people who challenge it,” he said.

“This sentence is at the most extreme end of the spectrum in terms of what could have been expected. The inescapable conclusion is that he will die in prison.” [Source]

A profile by John Garnaut in 2011, during another of Yang’s detentions in China, stated that Yang’s “most influential teacher was Wang Huning,” who went on to become a powerful member of the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee. “These connections provided fodder for his fiction and informed his views. And they partly explain how he has been allowed to survive long enough to attract the phenomenal following he has on the Chinese-language internet,” Garnaut wrote. As dissent in China came under tighter control, Yang became more cautious in his public comments, but this was not enough to protect him. “[S]omebody somewhere is trying to send a message to people like Dr. Yang,” Richard McGregor, senior fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute, told The Washington Post. 

Yang penned a letter to his family that was released before his trial in 2021. Maintaining his innocence, he wrote, “worst comes to the worst, please explain to the people inside China what I did, and the significance of my writing to people in China.” Angus Watson and Nectar Gan reported for CNN that Yang’s PhD supervisor had shared his outrage at the sentence, and views on Yang’s actions:

Feng Chongyi, Yang’s friend and former PhD supervisor in Australia, called his sentence a “barbarous act by the Chinese Communist regime.”

“Yang is punished by the Chinese government for his criticism of human rights abuses in China and his advocacy for universal values such as human rights, democracy and the rule of law,” he said.

“This is outraging political persecution and an unacceptable arbitrary imprisonment of an innocent Australian citizen.” [Source]

CGTN journalist Cheng Lei followed a similar trajectory to Yang. A Chinese-born Australian citizen, Cheng was detained in August 2020 and then charged in February 2021 with leaking state secrets. After three years in detention and a deferred verdict, she was allowed to return to Australia in October 2023. One month later, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visited China in what was seen as a cooling of tensions between both countries. Now, Yang’s sentence “is a slap in the face of Australia,” said Dominic Meagher, deputy director of the John Curtin Research Centre, a think tank in Melbourne. At The Guardian, Helen Davidson, Ben Doherty, and Paul Karp reported on the Australian government’s reaction

Penny Wong, Australia’s foreign minister, said on Monday the government was “appalled by this decision”, and said it had called in the Chinese ambassador, Xiao Qian, to lodge Canberra’s objection “in the strongest terms”.

Wong said the Australian government had advocated for Yang “at every opportunity and at the highest levels”.

“Australia will not relent in our advocacy for justice for Dr Yang’s interests and wellbeing,” Wong said. “All Australians want to see Dr Yang reunited with his family.” [Source]

Also on Monday, a Shandong court sentenced Li Qiaochu, an activist focusing on women’s and labor rights, to over three years in prison for subversion. Li was detained and released several times starting in December 2019, and underwent RSDL, in connection with her partner, activist Xu Zhiyong, who is serving his own 14-year sentence for subversion. Hayley Wong at the South China Morning Post summarized the verdict against Li:

In a verdict handed down on Monday, Linshu County People’s Court in Linshu, Shandong province, said the case related to articles posted on the blog of partner and fellow activist Xu Zhiyong, who is serving a 14-year sentence for subversion.

Li, 33, has already been in custody for three years. The court ordered her to serve three years and eight months, and deprived her of her political rights – such as the right to publish – for two years. Her family has appealed against the decision.

Her trial was heard behind closed doors because, according to a copy of the court’s verdict, the evidence and electronic data related to the case were regarded as “state secrets”.

The verdict said that at Xu’s request, Li helped him build a website for his personal blog in September 2019 and upload an archive of 273 articles Xu had written. [Source]

According to the South China Morning Post, Li’s mother said Li “looked totally different” after receiving inappropriate medication. Li has suffered from various medical issues in detention, including depression and near-daily hallucinations, but her mother’s requests for medical parole were denied each time. Amnesty International’s China director Sarah Brooks criticized Li’s treatment

“Li has been ruthlessly targeted for expressing views the Chinese authorities would prefer to suppress – on the premise that her speech could somehow topple the government. Her conviction highlights the grave dangers of peacefully advocating for human rights in Xi Jinping’s China.

“It is shameful that the Chinese authorities have jailed Li for speaking out against torture and ill-treatment rather than properly investigating the allegations she made. It is now imperative that they ensure Li is not subject to further ill-treatment in prison.

“Li Qiaochu has been jailed solely for exercising her right to freedom of expression. She must be released immediately and unconditionally.” [Source]

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