Australian writer Yang Hengjun has been formally arrested in China on suspicion of espionage and is being held in “harsh conditions”, the Australian government said on Tuesday.
Yang, who was born in China, was detained in the southern city of Guangzhou in January amid growing tension between Australia and its largest trading partner.
Yang has held Australian citizenship since 2002 and has a doctorate from the University of Technology Sydney. He had been living in New York as a visiting scholar at Columbia University.
“We have serious concerns for Dr Yang’s welfare, and about the conditions under which he is being been held,” Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement.
“Dr Yang has been held in Beijing in harsh conditions without charge for more than seven months,” she added.
“Since that time, China has not explained the reasons for Dr. Yang’s detention, nor has it allowed him access to his lawyers or family visits.”
China’s foreign ministry has said Yang was suspected of engaging in criminal activities that endanger China’s security, but Yang’s Australian lawyer Rob Stary said the basis of the espionage charge remains unclear.
“We think it relates to espionage on behalf of Australia, but it’s not specified on the charge sheet,” Stary said. “We’d obviously be disturbed by that if it was the allegation, because there is absolutely no foundation for it at all.”
Stary suspects the espionage charge relates to Yang’s democracy activism. “He’s a blogger and that’s what he does, he’s an academic, he’s of a different ilk,” Stary said.
Australia expected Yang to be treated in accordance with international human rights law, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with special attention to those provisions that prohibit torture and inhumane treatment, guard against arbitrary detention and that protect the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, Payne said.
Before Yang was moved into criminal detention, he had been held under so-called residential surveillance at a designated location. This can involve being guarded 24-hours a day with lights on continuously and tortures including sleep deprivation, being tied to a chair or forced to stand for hours.
with inputs from AP and Reuters