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Yang Hengjun: Australian writer says he is unafraid of ‘suffering and torture’ ahead of trial in China | China

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Yang Hengjun, the Australian democracy activist who goes on trial for espionage in China on Thursday, says he is unafraid of the “suffering and torture” of a potential long prison sentence, and he wishes he could keep writing to “help China to understand the world”.

In a letter dictated from detention, where he has been held more than two years and interrogated more than 300 times, he urged a friend “don’t worry about me”.

“I will face suffering and torture with resilience … I will face each day with dignity.

“There is nothing more liberating than having one’s worst fears realised. I have no fear now. I will never compromise.”

Yang’s letter urged his friends and supporters to preserve his writings.

“If worse comes to worst, if someone wants to take revenge on me for my writings, please explain to the people inside China what I did, and the significance of my writing to people in China.

“The values and beliefs which we shared, and which I shared with my readers, are something bigger than myself.”

Yang’s closed-door trial begins in Beijing on Thursday morning. The Australian government has criticised the “closed and opaque” legal process, which has barred Yang from access to consular assistance and lawyers. The Chinese justice system regularly reports conviction rates of about 99%.

First arrested in January 2019, Yang was formally charged with espionage on behalf of a foreign country. He has not been told which country he is alleged to have spied for.

Yang has faced more than 300 rounds of interrogation – including, at times, being shackled at his wrists and ankles, or blindfolded – but has reportedly refused to make any confession.

“I am innocent and will fight to the end,” he told his family last year. “I will never confess to something I haven’t done.”

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Amnesty International said that if found guilty of espionage, he faces a minimum of three years in prison. But he faces a potential death sentence if deemed to have “endangered national security with particularly serious harm to the country and the people”.

Friends are concerned that, given Yang’s failing health, even a long prison term could be an effective death sentence.

In his letter from prison, dictated in March after 26 months of detention, Yang struck a resilient note, but also a wistful one of opportunities potentially lost forever.

“I hope that I will have more chances to tell readers what’s going on around the world, and what’s going on in me. If I get out, I will write articles to improve Australia-China relations and that will help China to understand the world, and the world to understand China.”

He said his health had suffered from 26 months without access to fresh air or sunshine. And he wrote that he hoped he might return to his adopted country of Australia – “a heaven-like place” – as well as revisit Hong Kong and the United States.

“I have many things to do.”

Yang quoted the French romantic writer Victor Hugo: “The supreme happiness is the conviction of being loved.”

“So you know, I love you all, and I know that I am loved,” Yang wrote. “Please bring my love to all the people concerned about my situation.”

The head of Amnesty International’s China team, Joshua Rosenzweig, said allegations Yang was a spy for a foreign country were “totally baseless”.

“The charges against Yang appear to be a politically-motivated prosecution for articles he wrote that were critical of the Chinese government. This is an outrageous attack on his right to freedom of expression.

“Having reportedly endured hundreds of interrogations and been held in inhumane conditions with severely restricted access to his lawyer, Yang now faces an unfair trial behind closed doors. He remains at grave risk of torture and other ill-treatment.”

The Australian foreign minister, Marise Payne, said that despite repeated requests from Australian diplomats “Chinese authorities have not provided any explanation or evidence for the charges facing Dr Yang”.

“We have conveyed to Chinese authorities, in clear terms, the concerns we have about Dr Yang’s treatment and the lack of procedural fairness in how his case has been managed.”

A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Canberra said Payne’s comments were “deplorable”.

“Chinese judicial authorities handle the case strictly in accordance with law and fully protect the lawful rights of the relevant person. The Australian side should respect China’s judicial sovereignty and refrain from interfering in any form in Chinese judicial authorities’ lawful handling of the case.”

Yang’s prosecution is one of several prosecutions of foreigners from countries currently in dispute with Beijing. Another Australian, the journalist Cheng Lei, has been detained for more than eight months on similarly vague national security charges.

Fifty-five-year-old Yang, whose legal name is Yang Jun, was born in Hubei in central China. He was formerly a diplomat for China’s ministry of foreign affairs, and an agent for the secretive ministry of state security, before working in the private sector in Hong Kong and moving to Australia, then to the US, where he was a visiting scholar at Columbia University.

A writer of spy novels, he has been a popular blogger, political commentator and agitator for democratic reforms in China for more than a decade. He describes himself as a “democracy peddler”.

Yang, who became an Australian citizen in 2002, flew into Guangzhou with his family in January 2019. His wife and child were able to enter China, but authorities escorted Yang from the plane into detention.

He was initially held under a system known as “residential surveillance at a designated location”, a type of secret detention of up to six months in which authorities can deny a suspect access to lawyers and to family, and restrict external communication. Yang was moved to a Beijing detention centre in the lead-up to being formally charged.

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