The federal government said it would continue to advocate for the release of Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who on Saturday marks two years in detention in China.
Saturday August 13 marks the second anniversary of Ms. Chen’s detention in China. She faced a trial behind closed doors in Beijing on March 31, 2022 and has yet to learn the outcome.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong said the government would continue to defend Ms Cheng’s interests and well-being.
“Our hearts today go out to Ms. Cheng’s family, including her two young children, with whom she has had no contact since being detained,” she said in a statement.
“Since Ms Cheng was detained in August 2020, the Australian Government has consistently called for fundamental standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment to be upheld, in line with international standards.”
Human Rights Watch says the Albanian government should impress upon its Chinese counterpart that the release of arbitrarily detained Australians is essential to restoring relations between the two countries.
“Critical to restore ties” with China
“Two years after her disappearance, and nearly five months after a closed trial to which the Australian ambassador was refused entry, Australian journalist Cheng Lei is still languishing in a detention center in Beijing for dubious charges of state secrecy,” Yaqiu Wang – Rights Watch’s senior human rights researcher on China – said in a statement to SBS News on Friday.
“The Albanian government should make it clear that the release of these arbitrarily detained Australians is essential to restoring relations with Beijing,” Ms Yaqiu said.
His comments came just days after Chinese Ambassador to Australia Xiao Qian spoke to the National Press Club in Canberra, where he said Chinese laws must be “respected”.
“I think we all have to abide by China’s laws and regulations,” Xiao said on Wednesday.
Here is a brief recap of the events of the past two years.
Exactly two years ago to date, Ms Cheng was arrested in Beijing for allegedly leaking state secrets.
An Australian citizen, Ms Cheng, 47, was born in China and worked as a TV presenter for the Chinese state-controlled English television channel CGTN.
The mother-of-two criticized the Chinese government on her social media platforms before her arrest.
The Chinese government did not link Ms Cheng’s detention to her social media posts, nor did it reveal any other details about the case.
Shortly after Ms Cheng’s arrest, CGTN removed all evidence of her employment with the broadcaster from its website and social media channels.
A few weeks after Ms. Cheng’s arrest, Zhao Lijian – deputy director of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s information department – confirmed at a press conference that Ms. Cheng was “suspected of carrying out illegal activities endangering China’s national security”.
“This case is being handled in accordance with law, and Cheng’s legitimate rights and interests are fully guaranteed,” he said.
The court case
In February 2021, the detained Australian citizen was formally arrested and in March this year a closed trial began in a Beijing court.
Australia’s Ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher, was among foreign diplomats and journalists who were barred from entering the courtroom as Ms Cheng stood trial.
Australian Ambassador to China Graham Fletcher (centre) leaves a court after being refused entry to the premises of Australian journalist Cheng Lei’s trial in Beijing on March 31. Source: AFP / Noel Celis/Getty Images
Then-foreign minister Marise Payne accused the Chinese government of lacking transparency.
“The Australian government respects the sovereignty of the Chinese legal system. However, Ms Cheng’s case lacked transparency and the Australian government never received details of the charges,” she said.
Mr Xiao – China’s ambassador to Australia – confirmed on Wednesday that Ms Cheng’s case was “still ongoing”.
Ms Cheng’s partner, Nick Coyle, spoke of the challenges he and his two school-aged children have faced over the past two years.
“She hasn’t had a chance to speak to her family, her children, me or anyone in those 23 months,” Mr. Coyle told SBS News.
While in detention, Ms Cheng was allowed to meet in person with Australian consular officials, but even these were dropped during the COVID-19 lockdowns.
“She has her 30-minute consular visit done once a month via video call,” Mr Coyle said.
Ms. Yaqiu of Human Rights Watch criticizes the way Ms. Cheng is treated in China.
“Cheng has been denied constant access to visits by consular officials or her family. It was also recently reported that she was not receiving adequate food,” Ms Yaqiu said.
Who else has been arbitrarily detained in China?
Ms Cheng is not the only Australian wrongfully detained, Ms Yaqiu said.
“Writer Yang Hengjun has now been detained for more than three years,” she said.
A former Chinese diplomat, novelist and blogger, democracy advocate, Mr Yang flew to Guangzhou with his wife and child in January 2019.
While his family was allowed into the country, Mr. Yang was detained for espionage and has not been released since.
The 55-year-old was tried in May this year.
[These cases lay] lay bare the abusive, impermeable and politicized nature of China’s justice system.
Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch
Mr Xiao – China’s ambassador to Australia – confirmed on Wednesday that Mr Yang’s case is also “still under jurisdiction and we want to settle it in accordance with Chinese rule and laws”.
“There are a few Australian citizens in China who are being detained according to Chinese rules and laws, and their basic rights are well protected, don’t worry about that,” he said.
But Ms. Yaqiu of Human Rights Watch is not convinced by his statement.
“[These cases] mock Chinese Ambassador Xiao Qian’s claim this week that Cheng’s “basic rights are well protected,” and [lay] lay bare the abusive, impermeable and politicized nature of China’s justice system,” Ms. Yaqiu said.
SBS News has contacted Foreign Secretary Penny Wong’s office for comment.