Hold the outrage

Feb 7, 2024

We need to be careful with the outrage over the sentencing of Yang Hengjun in China.

Yang was a former member of the security (intelligence) services, working for China’s Ministry of State Security. On leaving China, he became a trenchant critic of his former employer and an advocate for the overthrow of the Chinese Government. Whilst he took out Australian citizenship in 2002, it is unclear if he retained his Chinese citizenship.

The result of his, some would say, ill-advised, return to China was that he was arrested and detained for 5 years before his ‘secret’ trial was concluded and a sentence handed down. His sentence for espionage is lifelong imprisonment with a suspended death penalty. No outside observers were permitted as classified security evidence was considered by the court. He was considered guilty of endangering national security under particularly aggravating circumstances.

We are aghast with horror and condemnation but it mirrors what we do ourselves. Espionage and security cases are not usually held in open courts, outsiders are not permitted to observe, evidence is covered by a shroud of ‘secrecy’ and sentences are often draconian.

China is not unique in this approach and nor is Australia immune.

With just a few glimpses behind the curtain of secrecy, we know a little about the infamous witness K trial. Evidence was given in secret behind closed doors. Witness K was not able to see the evidence arrayed against him because it was ‘secret.” His lawyer, Bernard Collaery was also banned for accessing all of this evidence on the same “secret” grounds. No outside observers were permitted to attend when the court was closed over classified information. Witness K was charged five years after raids on his home in Canberra over the case. Although both he and his lawyer, Bernard Collaery did not face a death penalty, they did face the prospect of a 10 year prison sentence.

We overlook, perhaps because it was all in secret, the imprisonment of the mysterious inmate going under the pseudonym Alan Johns, in a Canberra prison who was prosecuted and jailed in complete secrecy. As the Guardian reported “it is understood the man was a senior military officer involved in intelligence, but publishing information about his offending has been banned. It is not known when he was convicted.” Known as Witness J, he was placed in the high-security sex offenders’ wing of Canberra’s Alexander Maconochie Centre.

Perhaps more egregiously, Australia currently holds former American citizen, but now Australian citizen, Daniel Duggan in isolation in maximum security, at the request of the US Government. Like China, America claims former citizens as their own. His extradition hearings are cloaked in secrecy and he is denied the ability to fund reasonable legal representation. He has been detained for more than a year. Despite Australia’s refusal to extradite people to countries where the death penalty may apply, this prohibition does not seem to apply to the United States. Duggans extradition to the US is on charges that carry a 20 year sentence, but if are upgraded, may carry a death sentence.

The Australian Government and media are outraged at the Yang judgement, but they show no such compassion for Julian Assange.

Confined in Belmarsh for 5 years following involuntary confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy for 7 years. Due to the security nature of the material on Wikileaks, his US trial will be largely ‘closed.’ It is an open question as to whether Australian representatives will be able to attend all of the trial. Assange faces a lifetime in jail after the Australian Government secured some guarantee that the death penalty will not be applied.

As a nation we were also happy to abandon David Hicks and his 5 years in Guantanamo Bay while facing charges which carried the death penalty. The travesty of the trial that saw his conviction went unremarked by Australian politicians and media.

Were Yang’s charges justified? As with any secret security trial anywhere, we are unlikely to know. However, we need to be cautious in expressing outrage when our own record on security-related trials is less than untarnished. This is not to suggest that conditions in the Australian legal system are the same as those in the Chinese system but there are disturbing similarities in many areas of practice when it comes to cases involving national security and former employees.


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