Australian journalist Cheng Lei is on trial in Beijing

Australia's Ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher, ministers to journalists at the No. 2 Intermediate People's Court in Beijing after he was denied admission to the trial
Australian Ambassador to China Graham Fletcher attends to journalists outside the No.2 Intermediate People’s Court in Beijing after being denied admission to the trial where Australian journalist Cheng Lei is on trial on state secrets charges March 31, 2022 in Beijing, China is to be posed REUTERS/Florence Lo

March 31, 2022

By Martin Quin Pollard

BEIJING (Reuters) – Australian journalist Cheng Lei was due to be tried on Thursday after more than 19 months in detention in a closely guarded Beijing court on state secrets charges.

Cheng, who was a television host for Chinese state broadcaster CGTN before his arrest in August 2020, was formally arrested a year ago on suspicion of illegally leaking state secrets abroad.

Cheng’s family members said they were convinced that she was innocent.

Outside the No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court, where Cheng was due to be tried Thursday morning, there was a strong security presence made up of uniformed police officers and plainclothes security personnel. Police, who cordoned off areas near the court’s north entrance, checked the journalists’ IDs and told them to leave.

Australian Ambassador Graham Fletcher was banned from the court.

“This is deeply concerning, unsatisfactory and regrettable. We cannot have confidence in the validity of a process conducted in secret,” he told journalists before leaving.

A court official told Fletcher that he could not be admitted because the case was “state secrets” so the trial could not be public.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement Saturday that her ministry had asked Chinese officials to allow Australian officials to attend Cheng’s hearing under a consular agreement between the two nations.

“We expect basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment to be observed in accordance with international norms,” ​​she said.

Payne said Australian officials have visited Cheng regularly, most recently on March 21.

Australia has previously said it was concerned about Cheng’s well-being and detention conditions, saying there was a lack of transparency in the case.

According to calculations by China Justice Observer, a local web portal, China’s courts have a conviction rate well over 99%.

“Her two children and her elderly parents miss her greatly and sincerely hope to see her again as soon as possible,” Cheng’s family said in a statement provided to Reuters.

At a news conference earlier this week, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman did not directly respond to a Reuters query about whether Australian officials would be allowed to attend, but said Cheng’s rights would be fully guaranteed.

Last May, in another case before the same court, Australia’s ambassador to China was refused entry to the trial of Australian blogger Yang Hengjun, who was accused of espionage. Canadian officials were refused entry into the country in a trial against former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig in the same court last March.

Cheng was born in China and moved to Australia with her parents as a child. She later returned to China, where she built a television career, first with CNBC from 2003 and as a prominent business news anchor for China’s English-language CGTN from 2012.

The trial comes as diplomatic relations between Australia and China remain strained after Canberra pushed for an international investigation into the source of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and Beijing responded with trade reprisals.

(Reporting by Martin Quin Pollard in Beijing and Kirsty Needham in Sydney; Editing by Tony Munroe, Raju Gopalakrishnan & Shri Navaratnam) Australian journalist Cheng Lei is on trial in Beijing

Bobby Allyn

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