Australian academic Yang Hengjun has been given a suspended death sentence by a Chinese court, after five years in detention on espionage charges.
Yang was arrested in 2019 at Guangzhou airport, accused of spying for an undisclosed foreign country. The pro-democracy blogger is an Australian citizen who was born in China.
Penny Wong, Australia’s foreign minister, said on Monday the government was “appalled by this decision”, and said they had called in the Chinese ambassador to lodge Canberra’s objection. Yang’s detention in China has been a key point of friction between the Chinese and Australian governments.
Wong said the Australian government had advocated for him consistently and “at the highest levels”.
“Australia will not relent in our advocacy for Dr Yang’s interests and wellbeing,” Wong said. “All Australians want to see Dr Yang reunited with his family.”
The sentence revealed on Monday is formally described as a death sentence with a two year reprieve. It is a relatively common sentence which allows death sentences to be commuted to 25 years, or life in prison after two years of “good behaviour”.
Associate Prof Chongyi Feng, Yang’s PhD supervisor in Australia, said Yang’s sentence would be converted to life in prison. He said his former student’s sentence was an “outrageous political persecution”.
“Dr Yang did not commit any crime of espionage. He is [being] 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.”
Feng said Yang’s detention, trial and sentence had been a grave injustice, “but Dr Yang won’t be able to appeal due to poor health”.
“Five years of arbitrary detention and torture have taken a heavy toll on his health. He is now critically ill.”
He urged Australia to press for Yang’s return to Australia immediately, potentially on medical parole, so he could access treatment.