Topics: Sentencing of Dr Yang Hengjun; 

04:05PM AEDT
5 February 2024


Tom Connell:  Australian writer, Yang Hengjun, has been announced that Chinese authorities have sentenced to a suspended death sentence, which amounts to life in prison. Joining me live is Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham. Your reaction to this?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Tom, clearly this is deeply distressing news for Doctor Yang, for his loved ones, family and all of his supporters across Australia. And I am sure that Australians will be outraged and appalled at this sentence. And the way in which Doctor Yang has been so unjustly and unfairly treated over the last few years, and the implications of a sentence that potentially means he will never be reunited with his loved ones and his family.


Tom Connell: Obviously, it was a good result for Cheng Lei and her family. Does this result show that it’s sort of up to the capricious nature of the Chinese Communist Party? And other than not inflaming the situation, any government of the day just has to hope for the best.


Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s certainly a reminder that we have vastly different systems of government and of justice. And I think whilst this will be deeply distressing for Doctor Yang and his loved ones, it also does nothing for Chinese people or people-to-people relations, in that it only further underscores some of the risks that come from doing business with, or engagement with Chinese a system that can apply the rule of law in such an unjust and seemingly arbitrary manner. Let’s remember that Doctor Yang has been detained already for more than five years. Australian officials were denied access to his trial. He has had his sentencing deferred throughout that time and now faces this most grievous and challenging sentence, which does mean we have to ensure that his case is a top priority for any and all engagement by the Albanese Government and by all Australian officials with Chinese counterparts, to make sure we advocate and argue for his interests. Firstly, his health and wellness, which has been the subject of speculation and for which he needs to have absolute care and the appropriate health access as should be achieved. Also, consular access, which he has a right to and which China is obliged to provide to Australian officials, but also ultimately for his release and return to Australia, which should be an ongoing top priority of our advocacy.


Tom Connell: It should be pointed out- so tried in secret as well and the previous government, this government have been adamant there’s nothing to the charges against him. There’s no validity to this. You alluded to the justice system. It’s not just a system, is it?


Simon Birmingham: It’s not just it is unjust. It is unfair. His detention to date has been an arbitrary detention without certainty around the charges, the nature of the trial, nor the duration of detention. Now he faces a sentence that indicates a lifetime of imprisonment, yet further compounding the unjust nature of the treatment to date. This case demands constant vigilance. It cannot be allowed to slip from view or mind. It needs to be at the top of agendas for all engagement by the Albanese Government and all officials with Chinese counterparts.


Tom Connell: So, it should be brought up even if it makes people uncomfortable and governments unpopular?


Simon Birmingham: It should absolutely be brought up. This is a politically motivated charge in terms of the nature, it seems, of the charges are otherwise that have been applied. This is not a case of drug smuggling or other instances that we see across the region from time to time.


Tom Connell: We disagree on a sentence. This is much more at the core of someone who is just a writer.


Simon Birmingham: As I say these are the types of rights and liberties that in Australia we take for granted. And tragically, it is that reminder that, as I said before, can only harm the way in which the Chinese system is viewed and can only harm those people-to-people links. But ultimately, there is an Australian citizen here who faces a potential lifetime of being kept from his loved ones, and that warrants our ongoing attention.


Tom Connell: Yes, with those health difficulties that you alluded to as well, Simon Birmingham appreciate your time today. Thank you.