An Australian writer who has been detained by Chinese authorities for more than 19 months has revealed he’s been interrogated more than 300 times and taken to meetings handcuffed and blindfolded.
Yang Hengjun, in his first external communication in months, has rejected Chinese reports he had confessed to espionage, stating: “I am innocent and will fight to the end.”
“I will never confess to something I haven’t done,” the democracy activist told his family in a message.
Yang, who has been held in China on spying charges for 19 months without facing trial, has been allowed meetings with his lawyer and Australian diplomats this week.
The meetings are the first time anybody outside China’s criminal justice system has seen Yang since December – before the coronavirus pandemic swept the world. Australia’s consular agreement with China mandates monthly consular meetings.
The Guardian understands Yang has been brought into meetings in handcuffs, a face mask and a blindfold by guards wearing full-body PPE. He is made to sit in a wooden chair fitted with a restraint across the arms that stops him from standing. The blindfold is removed for discussion, but his face mask has remained.
Yang said he had endured more than 300 interrogations, sometimes for hours in the middle of the night, from more than 30 people. “It was not always clear what authority they represented,” he said.
Up until a few days ago, he was being interrogated – with the same questions repeated over and over – for up to five hours a day, every day for 20 days, he said. The questions were without consistent focus, ranging over Australia, the US, and Chinese political activity.
In his cell inside the Beijing state security detention centre, which he shares with four others and where the lights are on 24 hours a day, Yang has access to food and water, and can buy books to read. He sleeps on a wooden platform and is allowed to shower twice a week.
Yang has reported his health is “OK” – he has blood pressure and prostate conditions – but that he feels “very isolated”.
Yang passed a message to his family: “I will do my best. I am innocent and will fight to the end. I will never confess to something I haven’t done.”
In March, China’s ministry of foreign affairs told the Australian embassy in Beijing Yang had confessed to the allegations of espionage against him. Yang denies making any confession.
“I want to go to court,” he said. “I was worried that Chinese authorities would make such claims when there can be no (local) media coverage; they cannot create rumours like this. I did not confess to anything criminal.”
He said being held for 19 months was unfair and an abuse of the legal process. “I am innocent. This is political persecution.”
The Australian government has said similar: the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said allegations Yang was a spy were “absolutely untrue”. The government confirmed a consular meeting – conducted online – with Yang this week.
Yang’s Beijing lawyer, Shang Baojun, told the Guardian he met with Yang on Thursday for just over an hour.
“I asked whether he accepts the charge of espionage, he doesn’t accept it. We are not sure when we will be able to see him next time, but we have already filed the application, we hope it will be next Monday.”
Yang, 55, whose legal name in Yang Jun, was born in Hubei in central China. He was formerly a diplomat for China’s ministry of foreign affairs, before working in the private sector in Hong Kong and moving to Australia, then to the US.
A writer of spy novels, he has been a popular blogger, political commentator and agitator for democratic reforms in China for more than a decade.
Yang, who became an Australian citizen in 2002, had been living in the United States, where he was a visiting scholar at Columbia University.
He flew into Guangzhou with his family in January 2019, where he was arrested at the airport. His wife and child were able to enter China, but authorities escorted Yang from the plane into detention.
In July 2019, Yang was moved to a Beijing detention centre before being charged with spying for a foreign power. There is a range of espionage charges under Chinese law, carrying penalties from three years imprisonment to execution.
The conviction rate for those accused of a crime in China is 99%, in a criminal justice system almost entirely reliant on “confessions” obtained through long, secretive detentions. Sources say Yang’s refusal to confess could complicate – for Chinese authorities – any trial that could be imminent and is already months overdue.
Earlier this year, sources told the Guardian that Yang had been “totally isolated” in an attempt to “break him”, with no phone calls, correspondence or consular visits. Messages from family and friends, or reports from the outside world, were not passed on.
Yang has been repeatedly told he faces execution, that his country has abandoned him, and his family and friends have betrayed him.
Other reports revealed Yang had been held for months in solitary confinement and been shackled – bound by manacles on his wrists and ankles – for long interrogation sessions.
Yang’s continued detention, and uncertainty about his case, come at a time of acute strain in Chinese-Australian relations over a number of issues, including trade, the Covid-19 pandemic and telco Huawei.
Yang is one of several Australians detained in the country. Cheng Lei, an Australian television presenter on China’s state-run English news channel CGTN, was arrested in Beijing last month and remains in detention. Karm Gilespie, an Australian actor, was sentenced to death in China in June for drug smuggling. His friends claim he has been set up.
In July, the Australian government updated its information for Australians travelling to China, warning they could be at increased risk of arbitrary detention.
additional reporting by Lillian Yang