People ride past a police van outside the No. 2 Intermediate People's Court ahead of Australian writer Yang Hengjun's espionage trial in Beijing, May 27, 2021. (Photo: AP/Andy Wong)
People ride past a police van outside the No. 2 Intermediate People's Court ahead of Australian writer Yang Hengjun's espionage trial in Beijing on May 27, 2021. Yang was given a suspended life sentence on February 5, 2024, which Australia described as "harrowing news." (Photo: AP/Andy Wong)

CPJ calls on China to reverse death sentence against Yang Hengjun

Taipei, February 5, 2024—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns a Chinese court’s decision to hand Australian blogger and writer Yang Hengjun a suspended death sentence, and urges the Chinese authorities to free him immediately and unconditionally.

“The suspended death sentence for Yang is completely unacceptable, revealing the arbitrary nature of the Chinese legal system,” said Iris Hsu, CPJ’s China representative, on Monday. “No one should be imprisoned for espionage merely for writing a blog on geopolitical affairs. China must release Yang unconditionally and immediately.”

Yang, who is also known as Yang Jun and is a former Chinese diplomat turned political commentator, received the sentence from a Beijing court on Monday.

The sentence could be commuted to life imprisonment after a two-year period of good behavior, Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong said in a statement. Wong said the Australian government was “appalled” to learn about Yang’s sentence.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a news conference on Monday that “The Court ruled that Yang Jun was guilty of espionage and sentenced him to death with a two-year reprieve and ordered that all his personal property be confiscated. The people’s court heard the trial in strict accordance with the law and ensured that Yang Jun fully exercised his procedural rights.”

Police detained Yang at Guangzhou airport on January 19, 2019, but authorities gave no explanation for his detention until August of that year, when Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told reporters that the National Security Bureau in Beijing had formally arrested Yang on espionage charges, according the state-run People’s Daily newspaper and CNN.

In August 2023, Yang said that he was diagnosed with a kidney cyst and expressed fear of dying in detention, according to news reports. In China, imprisoned journalists are repeatedly denied proper medical care, which is effectively a slow death sentence, CPJ research shows.

China was the world’s worst jailer of journalists according to CPJ’s latest annual prison census, with at least 44 behind bars as of December 1, 2023.

The Chinese foreign ministry did not immediately respond to CPJ’s email requesting comment.

Editor’s note: This text was updated in the fifth paragraph to add comment from a news conference by China’s foreign ministry.