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Australia voices concern for journalist as trial in China looms

March 26, 2022 11:05 pm | Updated 11:05 pm IST - Sydney

Australian journalist Cheng Lei. File

Australian journalist Cheng Lei. File | Photo Credit: AFP

Canberra voiced concern for Australian journalist Cheng Lei's well-being on Saturday, as it confirmed she would face trial in China next week after almost two years in detention.

Ms. Cheng, previously an anchor on state broadcaster CGTN, disappeared in August 2020 and was formally arrested for "illegally supplying state secrets overseas" in February last year.

"The Australian government has regularly raised serious concerns about Ms. Cheng's welfare and conditions of detention," Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement, also confirming staff had met with Ms. Cheng on Monday.

"We expect basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment to be met, in accordance with international norms."

The mother of two was a familiar face on the state broadcaster's English-language channel, conducting interviews with noted CEOs from around the world.

Further details of the charges against her are not known.

"We have asked also that Australian officials be permitted to attend Ms. Cheng's hearing on 31 March, in line with China's obligations under the Australia-China bilateral consular agreement," Ms. Payne said.

Born in Hunan province, Ms. Cheng is now an Australian national who emigrated to the country as a child, before returning to China and joining the state broadcaster in 2012.

China does not allow citizens to hold dual nationality.

She could face severe punishment if found to have broken China's national security laws, which can carry a sentence of up to life in prison for cases deemed most serious.

Ms. Cheng's detention came as relations between Australia and China cratered.

The timing and lack of information about charges raised speculation that her detention was politically motivated, or tit-for-tat retaliation.

Beijing has reacted angrily to Australia's liberal use of foreign interference laws to block Chinese investment in sensitive sectors and to investigate Chinese influence on the country's public life, as well as Canberra's calls for an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ms. Cheng's detention also came weeks after Australian authorities raided the homes of Chinese state media journalists.

Her detention sent shockwaves through China's foreign journalist community and two Australian journalists, Bill Birtles and Michael Smith, fled China shortly after being interrogated about Ms. Cheng.

Months after Ms. Cheng's detention, Chinese authorities also detained a Bloomberg News employee, Haze Fan, also on allegations of endangering national security.

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