Australia denies China spying claim

PM says allegation against democracy campaigner and Australian citizen Yang Hengjun is 'absolutely untrue'
Australia denies China spying claim

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he respects China's sovereignty 'but we do expect Australians, indeed all citizens, to have their human rights appropriately looked after.' (Photo by William West/AFP)

Relations between Australia and China have come under further strain over what Prime Minister Scott Morrison regards as a false espionage claim by Chinese security authorities.

Dr. Yang Hengjun, 54, has been held for seven months, spending much of that time in solitary confinement.

Australia's Guardian newspaper reported that that Yang was told that he would be facing a single espionage charge. However, he was not provided with details of the alleged offence. There are a range of espionage charges that can be laid, with maximum penalties ranging three years' imprisonment to execution.

The Australian PM, speaking on a morning commercial television chat show, said he respected China's sovereignty. "But we do expect Australians, indeed all citizens, to have their human rights appropriately looked after," Morrison said.

He added: "There's their own justice process that they will follow in China and that's appropriate, but these suggestions that he's acted as a spy for Australia are absolutely untrue."

Yang, who has millions of followers around the world of a blog he writes advocating democratic reform in China, has thanked supporters for their assistance since his arrest.

He also expressed gratitude to Australian embassy staff in China for advocating on his behalf, despite cynics believing they would not do so because he is "not white" and China is Australia's most important trading partner.

Yang is only allowed one 30-minute meeting with embassy staff each month and he has not been allowed to meet with his lawyers or family members.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, who has previously sought Yang's release, says if this does not happen then he should be detained in "appropriate conditions" and given more access to legal help.

Payne has said there is "no reason to think" Yang's arrest was a case of so-called hostage diplomacy connected to other contentious issues.

Bilateral relations were already under strain over market access restrictions on telecommunication company Huawei and allegations of Chinese espionage as well as political interference in Australia's education system.

Further, Australia has been supportive of strong United States objections to Chinese military installations in the South China Sea.

China has insisted that Yang's case is being handled according to its rule of law and labeled Australian interference as unwarranted.

"China deplores the Australian statement on this case," said a foreign ministry spokesman in capital Beijing.

Yang, a former Chinese diplomat who became an Australian citizen in 2002, was detained in January when arriving by air in Guangzhou in southern China with his wife and child.

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