(Bloomberg) -- An Australian writer detained in China seven months ago has been formally arrested on suspicion of espionage, triggering swift demands from the government in Canberra that he be allowed to return home.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said she was “concerned and disappointed” that Yang Hengjun, a Chinese native who’s now an Australian citizen, would “continue to be criminally detained.” He is one of several detained foreign nationals whose cases have raised concerns about operating on the mainland. Two Canadians -- Michael Kovrig, a Hong Kong-based security analyst on leave from Canada’s foreign service, and entrepreneur Michael Spavor -- were detained in December and later accused of espionage.
“It is important, and we expect, that basic standards of justice and procedural fairness are met,” Payne said in a statement Tuesday. “I respectfully reiterate my previous requests that if Dr. Yang is being held for his political beliefs, he should be released.”
Yang was detained in the southern city of Guangzhou in January after a flight from New York. His lawyer Rob Stary told the Australian newspaper Tuesday that the precise nature of the espionage allegations weren’t clear, though apparently relate to his “democracy activism.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Tuesday that Yang’s case was being investigated “according to law” and that China “deplores” Payne’s statement.
“This case is now being investigated according to the law and his rights are lawfully and fully guaranteed. His health condition is good,” Geng told reporters in Beijing. “I’d like to stress that China is a nation with the rule of law and Australia should earnestly respect China’s sovereignty and stop interfering with China’s handling of this case in any form.”
At the time of his detention, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing said Yang was being investigated for “criminal activities endangering national security.” Yang previously was a Chinese foreign affairs official in Beijing, before becoming an Australian citizen and novelist, the Australian newspaper reported earlier this year.
Payne said Yang had been held in “harsh conditions” without charge and denied access to lawyers or his family. She said she had discussed the issue twice with her Chinese counterpart and written to him three times raising her concerns.
Yang has been visited by embassy officials seven times since his detention and a visit is scheduled for today, she said.
“I will continue to advocate strongly on behalf of Dr. Yang to ensure a satisfactory explanation of the basis for his arrest, that he is treated humanely and that he is allowed to return home,” Payne said.
(Updates with China Foreign Ministry comments in fifth paragraph.)
--With assistance from April Ma.
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