An Australian citizen tried for espionage in Beijing last week has told supporters he’s “100 per cent innocent” and still isn’t sure which country he’s accused of spying for.
Yang Hengjun conveyed a message to family and supporters on Friday, a day after he was tried behind closed doors in Beijing.
The 56-year-old one-time employee of China’s state security agencies and former online political writer also speculated that forced confessions and rough treatment he endured while in detention showed that someone may be “taking revenge” on him.
Since being pounced upon by state security agents at a southern Chinese airport in early 2019, Dr Yang’s case has been shrouded in secrecy.
Australian diplomats and his Shanghai-based Chinese wife were barred from observing his trial and authorities have gagged his lawyers from sharing any information about it.
But his message from prison gives the clearest insight yet into the process.
Dr Yang says he was taken from his prison to the court at 6:00am, supposedly to “avoid traffic”.
Dressed from head to toe in a full PPE suit, mask and goggles despite Beijing’s successful containment of COVID-19, he waited three hours for the trial to begin and said he was “tired and confused” during the hearing.
Dr Yang also said he’d had a pre-trial meeting with the judge three days earlier in which he unsuccessfully requested his interrogation records from the first six months be disallowed as evidence.
“It’s illegal. Torture. They had hidden camera records. I will ask the Chinese government to provide the truth,” he’s quoted as saying, referring to the first six months when he was being held incommunicado in what he described as a “really bad period”.
Under China’s law, investigators are able to cut off a suspect from lawyers and the outside world and interrogate them under what’s called RSDL — Residential Surveillance at a Designation Location.
One of his supporters, UTS Chinese studies academic Feng Chongyi, says using evidence gathered under duress violated China’s own criminal law.
“Yang’s request to exclude interrogation records under torture during RSDL deserves special attention,” he said.
China’s criminal procedure law states: “The use of torture to extract confessions is strictly prohibited, as are threats, enticement, trickery and other illegal methods of gathering evidence; no person may be compelled to prove his own guilt.”
The crime of espionage carries a sentence of anywhere from three years to the death penalty, and the secrecy around the specific offence has left all but those in the courtroom in the dark about a potential sentence.
In his message, Dr Yang alludes to his previous role working for China’s government, which supporters say he abandoned before moving to Australia in the early 2000s.
He later became prominent as a political writer who advocated for democracy, although he wasn’t regarded as a dissident and made multiple trips to China.
“I served China when I was young, even secretly, and I helped people,” he’s quoted as saying.
“This isn’t a crime of ideology. The charges are about espionage. But who did I work for?
“I didn’t work for Australia or the US. I’m only writing for people. Writing for the rule of law, democracy and freedom,” he said.
After diplomats were denied access to the trial in breach of a bilateral agreement, Foreign Minister Marise Payne dubbed Dr Yang’s case “arbitrary detention”.
“The Australian government has stated a number of times the fundamental importance of procedural fairness, basic standards of justice and international legal obligations,” Senator Payne said.
Dr Yang also expressed concern that the current poor bilateral relations may affect the verdict and sentence, which is expected before mid-July but could be delayed.
“I hope Australia can keep communicating with China on good terms to help bring about my release as soon as possible,” he’s quoted as saying.
“I will keep writing to help China, to promote the rule of law and to help China be strong, prosperous and respectable.”