10 Feb Australian government denies meddling in Cheng Lei case after Chinese criticism
Daniel Hurst – The Guardian – Wednesday 10 February 2021
The Australian government has rejected China’s claims of meddling after Canberra called for the detained Australian journalist Cheng Lei to be treated humanely, while the head of the security committee has labelled the accusation as “absurd”.
Chinese authorities have confirmed that Cheng – an anchor for the Chinese state-owned English-language news channel China Global Television Network – has been formally arrested “on suspicion of illegally providing state secrets to foreign forces” after nearly six months of detention.
Amid ongoing tensions between the two countries, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, called on the Australian government to “respect China’s judicial sovereignty and stop interfering in China’s handling of cases in accordance with law in any form”.
But the Australian foreign minister, Marise Payne, said it was “entirely appropriate for Australia to observe that [Cheng] deserves the basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment to be met in accordance with international norms”.
“That doesn’t constitute interference with the Chinese legal system,” Payne told the ABC’s AM program on Tuesday.
“Australia will always stand up for the interests of our citizens in the circumstances in which they find themselves.”
Payne said Australia was “not privy to that evidence” on which Chinese authorities had made the allegations against Cheng. Her children, aged nine and 11, are currently living with their grandmother in Melbourne.
Australian officials had been able to visit Cheng “approximately monthly in recent times” and there was “no question that these are very difficult and distressing circumstances for her”.
“She is naturally concerned, as anyone would be, about her family and about her own situation,” Payne said.
“I do want to absolutely acknowledge the extremely difficult time this is for her family. We are very aware of that. Our consular officers are engaged with her family as you’d expect.”
Payne made the comments after Louisa Wen, Cheng’s niece and a spokeswoman for the family, told the ABC’s 7.30 program she hoped the Australian government could do more for her aunt.
Wen said she was unsure what her aunt had been caught up in, but did not believe Cheng would have done anything to intentionally harm national security.
Wen called on the Chinese government to show more compassion and to remember Cheng was “a mother with two young kids, who really need her, and we’d love her to come home as soon as possible”.
Cheng – who was born in China but later became an Australian citizen – was working as a news anchor on a business show on CGTN. She has been detained in China since 13 August last year.
China’s foreign ministry said the Chinese judiciary had approved Cheng’s formal arrest Friday last week and argued that “the rights of the person involved are fully protected”.
James Paterson, the newly appointed chair of the Australian parliament’s intelligence and security committee, took aim at China’s foreign ministry for accusing Australia of meddling.
“That really is an absurd accusation from the Chinese ministry. We’ve done nothing of the sort of interfering in their legal system – we have no capacity to interfere in their legal system,” Paterson told ABC Radio National on Tuesday.
Paterson also addressed the speculation that China’s detention of Cheng in August could be a “tit for tat” response to Australians authorities’ questioning of four Chinese journalists in June as part of a foreign interference-related investigation.
“We don’t know and all I can say is that I really hope that’s not the case, because if it were the case it would amount to the Chinese government admitting that it takes political hostages in a retaliatory way,” Paterson said.
Paterson said there “really is no comparison to be made” between Cheng’s case and the earlier Australian raids on Chinese journalists.
“None of those journalists were detained without charge, none of them were held to be investigated for months on end, they were all allowed to return home safely and uninterrupted by the Australian government,” he said.
The raids on the journalists are known to have angered Beijing.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said in September that the Australian government had violated “the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese journalists there and caused severe harm to the physical and mental health of the journalists and their families”.
Cheng is not the only Australian in custody in China. The Australian writer Dr Yang Hengjun, who has been detained by Chinese authorities since early 2019, has rejected espionage allegations, saying he is “innocent and will fight to the end”.
Human rights observers have previously raised concerns about Cheng’s welfare, given she was initially taken into “residential surveillance at a designated location”.
That is a form of coercive custody that allows the Chinese ministry of public security and the ministry of state security to hold subjects in undisclosed locations without formal arrest, charge, trial or access to a lawyer for up to six months.
Now that Cheng has been formally arrested, the next stage of the investigation begins. It could be up to seven months before formal charges are laid.