China opens espionage trial against Chinese-Australian journalists

BEIJING (AP) — The trial of Chinese-Australian journalist Cheng Lei on charges of espionage began Thursday in Beijing, with diplomats being denied permission to take part in the negotiations.

Australian Ambassador Graham Fletcher told reporters outside the court he had been told he could not be present because the trial involved state secrets.

“This is deeply concerning, unsatisfactory and very unfortunate,” Fletcher said. “We cannot have confidence in the validity of the process being conducted in secret.”

Australia will continue to defend Cheng’s rights and interests under the China-Australia Consular Agreement, Fletcher said.

Cheng, a former host of the state-run China Global Television Network, has been held for 19 months on suspicion of leaking state secrets abroad.

China has not provided any information on what crimes Cheng is accused of.

“We have no information regarding the charges or allegations against Ms. Cheng,” Fletcher said. “That’s one of the reasons we’re so concerned.”

China’s state security statutes are notoriously vague, and the ruling Communist Party is often accused of using them to silence political enemies or other critics.

Her trial comes amid ongoing tensions between China and Australia over trade, Chinese foreign policy moves, allegations of Chinese interference in Australian politics and Australia’s call for a thorough investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic that started in China.

Australian diplomats last visited her in custody on March 21, and Fletcher said she “appears to be fine”.

Cheng has not been able to speak to her two sons in Australia, although she has been able to choose her own lawyers and Australian diplomats have been “pleased” with her well-being, Fletcher said.

China does not recognize dual citizenship, and Chinese-born defendants are often not treated the same as other foreigners, particularly when they are accused of espionage.

The Committee to Protect Journalists listed China as the top jailer of journalists for the third straight year in 2021, with 50 behind bars.

In a joint statement on Wednesday, Australia’s Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, the International Federation of Journalists, the Australian National Press Club and their US counterpart called for Cheng’s release and said she was being held on “dubious charges which are still being substantiated any proof must be provided.”

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