Jailed Australian journalist speaks out about harsh conditions

Cheng Lei, a Chinese-born Australian journalist for CGTN, the English-language channel of China Central Television, attends a public event in Beijing on Aug. 12, 2020. [AP Photo]

As Chinese Australian journalist Cheng Lei nears three years in detention in China this Sunday on murky espionage charges, she has issued a rare public statement about the harsh conditions she faces and her longing to reunite with her children.

"In my cell, the sunlight shines through the window but I can stand in it for only 10 hours a year," Cheng wrote in a letter shared by her partner Nick Coyle, who obtained the missive from Australian diplomatic officers. "It's not the same in here. I haven't seen a tree in 3 years."

Cheng, who used to work as a business television anchor for a Chinese state-run broadcaster, was found guilty of national security charges in a closed-door trial last year. She had been initially arrested in August of 2020. Chinese authorities have yet to hand down a final verdict in her case and her alleged crimes have not been made public.

In her message, Cheng wrote about her nostalgia for life in Australia and the difficulty of being separated from her children. "I relive every bushwalk, river, lake, beach with swims and picnics and psychedelic sunsets, sky that is lit up with stars, and the silent and secret symphony of the bush," she wrote. "Most of all, I miss my children."

Cheng's partner, Coyle, who used to be the head of the China-Australia Chamber of Commerce, told VOA Friday that while Cheng is managing things as well as she can, the separation from her children and elderly parents has been difficult for her.

"She can't make phone calls to her children or family, and it's certainly challenging," he said.

Coyle said Cheng has several cell mates and she has access to a 30-minute consular visit by Australian Embassy officials once a month. "It's difficult and restrictive," he said.

Rights front and center

The Australian government has repeatedly raised its concerns about Cheng.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said in a statement released Friday that Australia will continue to support Cheng and her family and advocate for her interests and well-being.

"Australia has consistently advocated for Ms Cheng, and asked that basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment to be met for Ms Cheng, in accordance with international norms," Wong said.

When Cheng was detained diplomatic tensions were rising between China and Australia. China put blocks on exports from Australia and froze relations after Australian accusations of Chinese interference in Australian politics and intimidation of the local Chinese community as well as Australian support for an investigation into the orgins of COVID-19.

Just before Coyle shared the statement on Twitter, though, relations appear to be on the mend. Last week, Beijing dropped anti-dumping tariffs and countervailing duties on Australian barley, a move that could pave the way for a visit by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to China this year.

However, the continuous detention of Cheng and other Australian citizens in China, shows that human rights must be "front and center" in Canberra's negotiation with Beijing, rights advocates say.

"Australia wants to have a positive environment for trade with China but that needs to come with a transparent, accountable government that respects the rule of law and human rights and that's not what we are seeing now," Elaine Pearson, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told VOA.

She added that Australia cannot move forward in its relationship with Beijing as long as the cases of detained Australian citizens remain unresolved.

Hostage diplomacy

Cheng is not the only Australian citizen in Chinese custody. Chinese Australian writer Yang Heng-jun was arrested at Guangzhou airport in January 2019 under espionage charges, and the verdict on his case has been repeatedly delayed for more than four years.

Feng Chongyi, an associate professor of China studies at the University of Technology Sydney and Yang's former adviser told VOA that while Yang no longer experiences torture or interrogation and his physical conditions have improved, the verdict on his case has been delayed by national security authorities in China 11 times.

"The biggest challenge for Yang is the ongoing psychological pressure because his case has been hanging there for more than two years," Feng said, adding that the opacity of China's criminal justice system makes it difficult for the outside world to predict how Yang's case may develop.

"Yang and Cheng are held as hostages by the Chinese government, and these cases show that Beijing will persecute Chinese or foreign citizens if there is a political need to do so," Feng told VOA.

Despite repeated criticism of its criminal justice procedures, the Chinese Embassy in Australia told VOA that Chinese judicial authorities have handled the cases according to law.

"It must be stressed that China is under the rule of law, and the lawful rights of Cheng are under full protection," the embassy said in an e-mail statement.

"Based on humanitarian considerations, China is ready to listen to Australia's demands and provide assistance within the scope of legal provisions," the embassy added.

Pressure coalition

While Australia focuses on repairing trade ties with China, Feng said Canberra should not soften its stance on human rights and the interests of its detained citizens when negotiating with Beijing.

"If Australia does not stand its ground, Australian citizens doing business in China could face the risks of being arbitrarily arrested or charged with espionage," he told VOA. "Changing its position on issues related to Australia's interest and core values will put the Australian government in a morally indefensible position."

Since China has also arrested citizens from Canada and Japan under espionage charges in recent years, Pearson said she thinks Australia should consider working with other countries in pressuring Beijing to release foreign citizens detained on murky national security grounds.

"I think the Australian government needs to build a coalition with other governments and increase its pressure on the Chinese government to release all those who are arbitrarily detained in China," she told VOA.

On Friday, Prime Minister Albanese also urged Chinese authorities to resolve Cheng's case said he will not make the outcome of the case a condition of his possible trip to Beijing which has not been confirmed by the Australian or Chinese government.

"I believe it is clearly the case that Cheng Lei, who now has had three years in detention, this issue should be resolved," he told a press conference at a New South Wales barley farm.

"As I've said consistently over a long period of time, visits and engagement and dialogue should not be transactional. Visits and dialogue are something that in themselves are constructive," he said.

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