China is preparing to formally indict Australian academic Dr Yang Hengjun with espionage, a charge that potentially carries the death penalty, as concerns grow over his isolation and treatment in prison.
Yang, 54, has been imprisoned for more than 432 days, and, for the last three months, has been held in total isolation, allowed no contact with the outside world.
Yang’s colleagues and the Australian government have consistently rejected Beijing’s allegations against him. No evidence has been presented publicly detailing the allegations against him.
“We call for Dr Yang’s immediate release and that he be allowed to leave China and travel to Australia with his wife,” the foreign minister, Marise Payne, said Wednesday, saying he had been held in harsh conditions that damaged his physical and mental health.
“The Australian government will always support Dr Yang.”
Under Chinese law, authorities were obliged to charge or release Yang by the end of March.
Yang’s Beijing lawyer, Shang Baojun, told the Guardian the case had been transferred to the procuratorate court system, under China’s general prosecutor office, which has six weeks to choose to put the case forward for trial, dismiss the case for lack of evidence, or ask police to provide more substantiation of the charges.
Yang’s case is likely to proceed to prosecution, according to experts who said that human rights cases almost always proceed to prosecution after being taken to the procurate courts. There is a range of espionage offences under Chinese law, carrying penalties from three years in jail to the death penalty.
There are serious and growing concerns about Yang’s treatment under interrogation inside a Beijing state security detention centre.
Sources have told the Guardian Yang has been “totally isolated” since December, with no phone calls, correspondence, or consular visits. No messages from family or friends, or any reports from the outside world have been passed on.
Previously, he was allowed one half-hour consular visit a month.
Reports of Yang’s detention reveal he had been held for months in solitary confinement and been shackled – bound by manacles on his wrists and ankles – for long interrogation sessions. The lights in his cell remain on 24 hours a day, and he is repeatedly interrogated with the same questions.
Meetings with his lawyers had been refused.
Earlier reports also suggest that Yang had pronounced difficulty walking, was being medicated, ostensibly for blood pressure issues, and was suffering from serious memory loss and dizziness. He has been reported as being pale and having lost more than 10 kilograms in weight.
Under constant monitoring, he had been forced to sit on a low stool from 7am to midnight every day, allowed to stand for a few minutes each hour.
Human Rights Watch has reported in detail about the interrogation techniques used against political prisoners in China, including the use of sustained sleep deprivation, stress positions, and forcible restraints, such as so-called tiger chairs.
Payne said the Australian government had repeatedly told China that basic international standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment must apply to Yang, and others held in China’s criminal justice system.
“We deeply regret that for over a year, our requests have not been taken up. Dr Yang has had no access to legal representation and has been held in harsh conditions that have been detrimental to his physical and mental health.
Payne said Australia had not been given any advice on Yang’s indictment.
She said the current global Covid-19 pandemic was an opportunity for international cooperation.
“Crises are a time for nations to pull together. It is not in the spirit of mutual respect and trust that our continued advocacy for Dr Yang has not been acknowledged.
Dr Feng Chongyi, associate professor in China Studies at University of Technology Sydney and Yang’s doctoral supervisor in Australia, said Yang’s incarceration was politically motivated.
“From day one, this has been a politically motivated charge. It has been done to serve two political purposes, one is to silence dissenting voices, the other is to exercise pressure on the Australian government in dealing with the Huawei case.”
The conviction rate for those tried on accusation of a crime in China is 99%, in a criminal justice system almost entirely reliant on “confessions” obtained through long, secretive detentions.
Feng, also previously detained in China, told the Guardian “I have no faith in the Chinese legal system to grant Dr Yang a fair trial.”
China has consistently maintained that Yang’s case was being prosecuted according to law, and has warned Australia against “interference” in the case.
“The Australian side should earnestly respect China’s judicial sovereignty and must not … interfere with a Chinese case,” a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, Geng Shuang, said last year.
Geng said Yang’s arrest had been handled in accordance with the law and that the Australian citizen was in good health.
Yaqiu Wang, China researcher for Human Rights Watch, said: “The Chinese government’s treatment of Yang has been appalling. He has been kept in harsh conditions and denied access to a lawyer of his choosing and to his family.
“The Chinese government has a long history of criminalising its critics under vague charges of ‘endangering nation’s security.’ The Australian government should work with other governments who also have citizens wrongfully detained in China to put pressure on the Chinese government.”
Born in Hubei province in 1965, Yang was formerly a diplomat for China’s ministry of foreign affairs, and worked for the ministry of state security – the agency that arrested him – before moving into the private sector in Hong Kong and moving to the US, then to Australia.