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International relations

Detained Australian Yang Hengjun to face trial in Beijing

55-year-old blogger was charged with espionage

SYDNEY (Reuters) -- Detained Australian writer Yang Hengjun will face trial in Beijing on an espionage charge with a judge expected to be appointed in the next fortnight, friends said on Saturday.

The 55-year-old blogger was detained by Chinese authorities in January 2019 at Guangzhou Airport after arriving from New York. He has been held in a Beijing detention facility with no access to his family, while his wife remains in China.

His Beijing lawyers were notified on Wednesday that Yang's case has been transferred to the Beijing Second Intermediate People's Court, a friend told Reuters.

A judge is expected to be appointed in the next two weeks to hear the case, said Feng Chongyi, a friend of Yang's and professor at the University of Technology Sydney.

The Australian government said on Saturday it has been informed that "Chinese authorities have decided to prosecute Australian citizen Dr Yang Hengjun on charges yet to be announced".

"We are obviously keen and have been stressing in all our diplomatic engagements around this issue that there should be transparency, there should be a fair and just process, and these are the things that we stand for as Australians," Prime Minister Scott Morrison told a news conference.

Under the Chinese legal system, the charge, evidence to support the charge and a proposed sentence will be given to the court at the start of a trial, Feng said.

"The system there is very different from the system here in Australia and that can cause some anxiety," Morrison said.

Yang's lawyers have met with him twice, for an hour each time, in the past month, his first legal access after 21 months of detention and interrogation by Chinese security authorities.

Consular access via videolink to Australian embassy officials was restored in September after being suspended amid the coronavirus.

"They know what they're doing, and they'll be providing tremendous support there," Morrison said.

Yang told his family in a message last month that he was innocent and would "never confess to something I haven't done".

Australia has strongly objected to the indictment.

Diplomatic relations between China and Australia have deteriorated this year, after Beijing imposed trade reprisals in response to Canberra leading calls for an international inquiry into the source of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last month China's foreign ministry confirmed another Australian, Chinese state television host Cheng Lei, had been detained in Beijing and was being investigated on suspicion of endangering national security.

The Chinese foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment on Saturday.

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