SYDNEY (AP) – The Australian partner of a journalist who has been detained in China for almost two years said on Thursday that he is being denied the opportunity to speak with his family and consular staff, and his health is deteriorating due to a poor diet in prison.
Journalist Cheng Lei, who was born in China and has Australian citizenship, was first arrested in August 2020 on suspicion of sharing state secrets. In March, she was tried in Beijing, but Australian diplomats were unable to enter the courtroom.
Since the trial, Chinese authorities have postponed the announcement of a verdict. Cheng, 46, had worked as a business journalist for the state-run China Global Television Network.
Speaking about the case publicly for the first time in an interview with Sky News Australia, Cheng’s partner Nick Coyle said he was concerned “at a great time” about his health and the lack of access he had to his family and Australian consular staff.
Coyle told Sky News that his regular 30-minute consular video meetings have been suspended indefinitely, apparently due to China’s harsh coronavirus restrictions.
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“I find it totally unacceptable,” Coyle said. “These monthly consular visits have been literally what has kept him going for 20 months.”
“He has not been able to make phone calls with anyone. He may have received three visits from his lawyer, just to prepare for the trial,” Coyle said. “She hasn’t received a phone call from her family or her children. Nothing.”
Cheng is the mother of two children living in Australia, and her parents also live in Australia.
Coyle served as executive director of the China-Australia Chamber of Commerce in Beijing before leaving China because of fears about his safety.
Coyle said Cheng had some health issues and her condition had diminished since she had been detained and fed a poor, inadequate diet. He said he once joked with him that his Starbucks coffee cost more than a week of his food.
“Fortunately, we’re dealing with the strongest person I know, mentally, emotionally, but there have been some really difficult health challenges along the way,” Coyle told Sky News.
Coyle said he still has no idea what Cheng is supposed to have done wrong. He said he was not even so interested in politics, but focused on business.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said. “He never did.”
His arrest came during a period of deteriorating diplomatic relations between China and Australia.
At Cheng’s trial in March, Australian Ambassador to China Graham Fletcher told reporters outside the court that he had been told he could not attend because the trial involved state secrets.
“This is deeply worrying, unsatisfactory and very unfortunate,” Fletcher said at the time. “We cannot be confident in the validity of the process that is being conducted in secret.”
Australia would continue to defend Cheng’s rights and interests in accordance with the consular agreement between China and Australia, Fletcher said at the time.
Following the trial, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the verdict would be announced at a later date unspecified. Wang said that because the trial involved state secrets, it was held in camera, but Cheng and his defense attorney had been present.
China does not recognize dual citizenship, and Chinese-born defendants often do not receive the same treatment as other foreigners, especially when faced with espionage charges.
Born in China, Cheng graduated from the University of Queensland. He worked as an accountant and financial analyst in Australia before moving to China in 2001, where he has since worked as a journalist.
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