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Australian spy novelist Yang Hengjun faces China espionage trial | Censorship News



Melbourne, Australia – Chinese-Australian citizen Yang Hengjun is expected to go on trial in China on Thursday, charged with espionage and accused of acting as a spy for the Australian government.

In a letter written in March and released on the eve of the trial, Yang was stoic.

“There is nothing more liberating than having one’s worst fears realised,” he wrote in the letter, which was published in Australian media. “I have no fear now. I will never compromise.

“The values and beliefs which we shared, and which I shared with my readers, are something bigger than myself.”

The 56-year old writer, blogger and pro-democracy activist was arrested in January 2019 when he arrived at Guangzhou airport with his wife and faces a possible death sentence if he is found guilty of having “endangered national security with particularly serious harm to the country and the people”. The minimum sentence is three years.

The accusation of acting as a spy for Australia has long been denied by the Australian government, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison describing the claim in 2019 as “absolutely untrue.” Canberra has called Yang’s detention “unacceptable”.

According to Amnesty International, Yang may have faced as many as 300 interrogations during his time in prison so far.

These interrogations, friend and colleague Feng Chongyi says, are designed to “extract a confession” and “fabricate a case against him”.

Feng, a Sydney-based Australian resident and self-confessed “Chinese Liberalist” was himself detained by the Chinese government for a week in 2017 after an academic visit.

“My detention was similar to Yang’s – to try to establish a case of espionage,” Feng told Al Jazeera. “But I was extremely lucky that I escaped the fate of Yang.”

Yang Hengjun is expected to face trial on espionage charges at Beijing’s No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court [Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters]

Feng says he and other liberals like Yang aim to “promote the rule of law, human rights and democratisation.”

“And of course, by doing that, we criticise the current one-party dictatorship and analyse Chinese society, especially the state-society relationship.”

State security official to activist, novelist

Feng has known Yang since 2005 as “a friend and a colleague”, describing him as “idealistic and aspirational”.

Feng confirmed that Yang worked for the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) for 14 years at what he said was “a provincial level”.

But according to Feng, Yang became frustrated with his work with the MSS and began to write spy novels in order to “escape from that profession he no longer believed [in] or had any enthusiasm for”.

Such novels were based on Yang’s own experiences in the ministry and while not published in book form in China, were posted on the internet under a pseudonym.

Yang and Feng initially connected online. The former moved to Australia in 2000 and began studying under Feng at the University of Technology Sydney five years later.

In particular, Feng says, Yang would study “the probable effect of the internet on Chinese Communist rule. So by doing that, he transformed himself into a liberal”.

After Yang graduated, the two worked together on many joint publications, edited books and ran conferences on Chinese liberalism and democracy.

Yang (right) seen during a discussion In Vancouver in 2015. Feng is sitting next to him. The other guest is Xin Lijian, a liberal businessman and educator who helped Yang, and was jailed for more than two years shortly afterwards [Courtesy of Feng Chongyi]

Feng says that Yang’s father – a head teacher and teacher – “had been prosecuted by the regime [and] never had a good relationship or opinion about the Communist dictatorship”.

As such, he believes it may have been that influence, along with Feng’s tutelage, that transformed Yang from a provincial government agent to an outspoken pro-democracy activist.

Yang’s status as an Australian citizen has turned his detention and upcoming trial into an international diplomatic issue.

In a recent media statement, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that “despite repeated requests by Australian officials, Chinese authorities have not provided any explanation or evidence for the charges facing Dr Yang”.

“Since his detention, Dr Yang has had no access to his family, and limited, delayed access to his legal representation.”

The statement also raises concerns that the trial will be a closed-door affair, with no Australian officials present.

Diplomats were barred from the court when Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who were detained the month before Yang and allowed only limited consular contact, were tried on espionage charges in March. Both men are awaiting verdicts. China’s courts convict 99 percent of defendants.

“We have conveyed to Chinese authorities, in clear terms, the concerns we have about Dr Yang’s treatment and the lack of procedural fairness in how his case has been managed,” Payne said.

“As a basic standard of justice, access to the trial for observers should be a bare minimum to conform with international norms of transparency.”

Australian-based Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that Yang’s trial would proceed under Chinese law.

“China’s judicial organs handle cases in accordance with law and fully protect the lawful rights and interests of relevant personnel,” Zhao told Al Jazeera when asked about the case. “As for the specific situation you mentioned, I have no information to offer you at present.”

Frayed diplomatic ties

Australia has close trading ties with China but relations have become frayed over Australia’s call for an on-the-ground investigation into the origins of COVID-19 in Wuhan where the first cases of the disease first emerged in late 2019.

Concerns are also mounting about human rights abuses against Uighur people, which has included the detention of the family members of ethnic Uighurs who are Australian citizens.

Australian citizen and television anchor Cheng Lei, who worked at state television CGTN, disappeared in August last year. She also faces charges of espionage [File: Australia Global Alumni – Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade via Reuters]

China has recently accused Uighur Australians of “terrorism” and last month Cheng Jingye, the Chinese Ambassador in Canberra, held a press conference in which he described the allegations of human rights abuses against the Uighurs as “fake news”.

Nor is Yang the only Australian being held in China. Cheng Lei, a high-profile business anchor for CGTN, a state television channel, disappeared in August last year. The following month, she was accused of endangering national security.

The detentions have attracted the attention of human rights organisations globally.

The head of Amnesty International’s China Team, Joshua Rosenzweig, said this week that “the charges against Yang appear to be a politically motivated prosecution for articles he wrote that were critical of the Chinese government. This is an outrageous attack on his right to freedom of expression”.

Rosenzweig added: “Yang’s case is yet more proof that incommunicado detention, coercive interrogations, secret hearings and the flagrant denial of fair trial guarantees on nebulous charges are part of the Chinese authorities’ routine repertoire for targeting government critics and human rights activists.

“Unless China can provide concrete, credible and admissible evidence that Yang has committed an internationally recognised offence, he must be immediately released with all charges dropped.”

However, his colleague and friend holds little hope. Feng believes that the trial will not conclude, allowing the authorities to detain him indefinitely.

“The current environment and determination of the party to punish Yang means that they will give a very harsh sentence on him,” he told Al Jazeera.

“This is a stark violation of human rights. I need to appeal to the international community and the Australian government as well to save Yang, and save the core values of human rights as well.”

“Yang is my very close friend. I have an obligation to come to his rescue, to bring him back to Australia.”

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‘Suddenly, she’s gone’: Mud and death in COVID-hit Indonesia | Coronavirus pandemic News




Jakarta/Kudus, Indonesia – It should have been a time of celebration for Puji Apriani’s family – she was pregnant with her second child, and just weeks away from giving birth.

But instead of welcoming a new life, her family is now in mourning.

“I miss her. She was healthy, her pregnancy was normal. And suddenly, she’s gone,” her younger sister Ery Jurniastuti said.

The family lives in Kudus, Central Java – one of the worst affected areas by Indonesia’s recent surge in COVID-19 cases.

“She felt out of breath, and she was coughing. She felt contractions in her stomach, too,” Ery said.

Home to almost 900,000 people, Kudus has recorded a 7,594 percent increase in cases since the beginning of this year.

Following a steep rise in cases this month, overwhelmed hospitals have been forced to turn patients away.

After being rejected by two hospitals, Puji was finally admitted, and her oxygen levels increased slightly.

But it was too late. Her condition deteriorated and she died in hospital.

“She died first, then they checked the heart of the baby. The baby is still inside, they didn’t take it out. It died there.”


Puji Apriani was pregnant and only a few weeks away from giving birth when she caught COVID-19. Now, instead of celebrating a new arrival, her family are morning the death of both Puji and her baby [Jamaah/Al Jazeera]

Doctors vs Delta

At the Loekmono Hadi General Hospital in Kudus, Dr Abdul Aziz Achyar said he was “surprised” by the ferocity of the surge, which has pushed bed occupancy rates in hospitals to more than 90 percent.

“During Ramadan, it was so quiet. We only had 18 patients. But then, when it started … I myself was also hospitalised,” he told Al Jazeera.

One hundred fifty-three of his colleagues also contracted the virus, and two of them died.

Indonesia’s capacity to track variants is limited, but doctors believe the current outbreak in Kudus is driven in part by the spread of the Delta variant, which was first detected in India.

“We sent cases from health centre [for genome sequencing]… from 72 samples, 62 were the new variant,” Dr Abdul said.

At Aisyiyah Kudus Hospital, Dr Najib Budhiwardoyo said his hospital is completely at capacity.

“We are full of COVID patients. This second wave started after Eid,” he said.

“All hospitals in Kudus are experiencing this problem … oxygen scarcity. We have to be selective; we can only use oxygen for patients with very low saturation.”

Swamp turned cemetery

It is not just the hospitals in Java that are close to capacity, but cemeteries too.

In the Indonesian capital, the designated COVID-19 burial sites, such as Pondok Rangon Cemetery, that were opened in the early months of the pandemic are already full.

Cemetery workers told Al Jazeera they are struggling to keep up with their workload.

“Before COVID, I used to dig 10 graves each day. But yesterday, we dug 46 graves. The day before, it was 51,” Darsiman, a gravedigger of 20 years, said.

“We are very tired. We work from morning until night.”

Darsiman, a gravedigger of 20 years, waits for Wahyudin to finish writing on a wooden headstone [Jessica Washington/Al Jazeera]

In Rorotan, North Jakarta, a new burial site for those who have died from COVID-19 opened just weeks ago – and already, more than 800 people have been buried there.

As the death toll continues to rise, finding room for the dead in this densely packed city is becoming a challenge.

The land at Rorotan used to be an empty swamp – the families of the deceased have to trek through the mud, to pay respects to their loved ones.

“This is a new cemetery … the other locations are full. There are just so many COVID cases, so they have to bring them here,” Darsiman said.

“It’s been raining so it’s muddy. It’s very sad to see funerals here, even the ambulances get stuck trying to come in.”

Headstone writer Wahyudin said his workload has increased because of the pandemic – and working at the cemetery takes an emotional toll.

“I feel so sad seeing this many burials. Seeing those families cry, I think about my own family,” he said.

“Before COVID, I also made headstones but it’s busier now. So many people have died.”

Moments to rest are scarce – just as workers lower a plastic-wrapped coffin into the ground, more ambulances arrive, with more dead to bury.


‘India should be our lesson’

This week, Indonesia surpassed two million confirmed cases of coronavirus – and more than 55,000 confirmed deaths.

Dr Nadia Siti, the head of Infectious Diseases at the Ministry of Health, said the rise in cases is not surprising.

“We know that if there is a holiday or event, there is an increasing number of people moving and travelling from other cities,” she said.

The cemetery at Rorotan has been built on what was once a swamp in northern Jakarta [Fakhrur Roz/Al Jazeera]
The cemetery at Rorotan has only been open for a few weeks and more than 800 people have already been buried there [Jessica Washington/Al Jazeera]

“The government had restrictions on mudik, which is the tradition of Muslims to visit their hometown [during Eid Al Fitr]. Still, there are four to six million people who travelled.”

The situation in Kudus and capital are of particular concern to the Ministry of Health, where bed occupation rates are high and hospital workers are already overwhelmed by the crisis.

“In Jakarta, the bed occupation rate is almost 80 to 90 percent. We instruct hospitals to convert their beds into COVID-19 services, so they can be available for patients,” she said.

“The last strategy is to establish field hospitals with the coordination of the army or police.”

Long before the pandemic, Indonesia had a shortage of medical professionals – and there are concerns about how its stretched healthcare system will cope when infections are expected to peak in July.

“With the existing doctors, paramedics and nurses, it might not be enough. We might need an experienced doctor to supervise five or 10 new ones, who don’t have experience in taking care of patients,” Dr Nadia said.

“We do hope we won’t face the same situation like India. What happened in India should be our lesson.”

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Former Philippine president Benigno Aquino dies at age of 61 | Obituaries News




Aquino was the country’s 15th president from 2010 to 2016, and was succeeded by current president , Rodrigo Duterte.

Former Philippine President Benigno Aquino III died early on Thursday, after a prolonged illness, according to several news reports.

Aquino, 61, served as the country’s 15th president from 2010 to 2016, and was succeeded in office by the incumbent, Rodrigo Duterte.

According to ABS-CBN News, he was hospitalised last Thursday.

But he has been undergoing dialysis for at least five months and had recently undergone a heart operation.

It was during Aquino’s administration that Manila took on China and filed a case before the Court of Arbitration at The Hague over the South China Sea dispute.

The Philippines later won that landmark case a month after Aquino left office in 2016.

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The scrappy Hong Kong tabloid that refused to bow to Beijing | Freedom of the Press News




Hong Kong, China – The last edition of the Apple Daily, the small scrappy Hong Kong tabloid that emerged as a champion of democracy and outspoken critic of China, has rolled off the presses, four days after the newspaper celebrated its 26th anniversary.

The paper had been raided by police twice during the past 10 months on suspicion of violating the National Security Law that was imposed by Beijing almost a year ago. Since the first raid last August, founder Jimmy Lai, 73, has been in jail awaiting trial under the law.

Last week’s raid saw five top executives, including its chief editor, arrested for alleged security offences as 500 police officers swooped in on Apple’s headquarters, with another staffer – the head editorial writer – apprehended on Wednesday morning.

The final nail in the coffin, however, was Hong Kong authorities’ freeze on the bank accounts of the media group that owns the paper. The move made it impossible for the paper to pay its staff and vendors, even as readers snapped up copies to show their support.

The decision was based on “employee safety and manpower considerations”, Apple Daily said as it announced its closure on Wednesday.
“Here we say goodbye. Take care of yourselves.”

Staff members of Apple Daily and its publisher Next Digital clap out the final edition of a paper that began publishing in 1995 and became a thorn in Beijing’s side [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” framework meant to guarantee rights and liberties absent in the mainland. For most of the past 20 years, the territory has remained a bastion of press freedom in a country where media is muzzled.

“The demise of Apple Daily negates ‘one country, two systems’ and sets the stage for ‘one country, one system,’” said Willy Lam, a longtime commentator on Chinese politics and a veteran newspaper editor.

Bold, brash

Founded just two years before the handover, Apple Daily was at once a gamble and a leap of faith.

“The paper wanted to have some impact not just on Hong Kong but also to support the liberalisation of China,” Lam told Al Jazeera. “But as China has become less open to Western values, the paper has focused on defending Hong Kong values and holding Beijing to account.”

In its inaugural editorial, Apple Daily said it aimed to be a paper for the Hong Kong people.

Lai, its founder and funder, a devout Catholic who had made a fortune in the fashion business, named the paper after the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament. Its rhyming couplet jingle – “An Apple a day, no liars can hold sway” – caught the attention of Hong Kong readers used to more staid offerings.

It was loud. It was bold, It was flashy.

The paper grabbed attention when it splashed a surreptitiously shot photo of Deng Xiaoping – China’s then-paramount leader died in February at the age of 92 – on his deathbed on the front page.

Brashness was its selling point.

Its reporters frequently skewered public officials and needled the comfortable.

“It speaks truth to power and finds a way to do profitably,” said Lokman Tsui, assistant professor of journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Jimmy Lai, standing by one of the printing presses in 2009, created a hugely popular paper that supported democracy, was unafraid to speak truth to power and critical of the Communist Party in Beijing [File: Alex Hofford/EPA]
Apple Daily’s founder and funder, Jimmy Lai, was arrested in August under the national security law and the paper’s headquarters raided. He has now been jailed [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

The paper catered to high brow and low. Colourful spreads of scantily-clad female models appeared in the same section of the paper as erudite columns featuring quotes in Latin and Classical Chinese. With a couple of exceptions, its ranks of columnists were the who’s who of the territory’s pro-democracy circle.

Giving people what they want

Launched at the dawn of the internet age, the daily was quick to adapt to the digital world. Its website pioneered animated news – a mix of stills, short clips and clever graphics with narration dripping with sour sarcasm. Its lifestyle channel on YouTube built a fervent following.

A decade in, the paper’s circulation peaked at 500,000 in a city of approximately six million people with a dozen dailies.

Apple Daily’s brand of advocacy journalism would soon make the paper a thorn in the side of the Chinese Communist Party. But to Lai, a rags-to-riches maverick millionaire now named Public Enemy No. 1 by Beijing, it was all about giving his customers what they would buy, even down to protest poster inserts.

In the summer of 2019, amid popular opposition to legislation that would send Hong Kong residents for trial in mainland China, the paper shorthanded “extradition to China” into the homophonic colloquial Cantonese expression of seeing someone to the grave. The expression immediately caught on and became a rallying cry in the protest movement.

“At times, we might have gone overboard but everything we did fell within the bounds of the law,” said Robert Chan, 45, who has covered mainland China for the paper for the past three years.

That is until the passage of the security law, which punishes what the authorities deem subversion, sedition, collusion with foreign forces and secession with possible life sentences.

Prosecutors have used Lai’s frequent meetings with US officials in recent years, from the then-vice president on down, as “evidence” of his alleged “collusion with foreign powers”.

Staff from Apple Daily and its publisher Next Digital work on the final edition of their newspaper on June 23. In its first-ever editorial, the paper said it wanted to be a publication of the Hong Kong people. It printed a million copies of its final edition [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Early last month, rumours started to circulate that Beijing wanted to see the paper be shuttered in time for the Communist Party’s centenary celebrations on July 1.

Technology reporter for a decade, Alex Tang, 37, said like most of his colleagues he had become conditioned to taking unsubstantiated gossip with a grain of salt – until the second raid and the company asset freeze.

During the past few days, some of the 800 reporters at the paper were frustrated by the lack of a definitive answer on the last publishing date and severance.

“Management said they’d hang on till the bitter end, and they’ve kept their word,” said Tang. “The company has done its best.”

Apple Daily will live on as a website on the self-governing island of Taiwan, where it ceased paper publication last month.

But in Hong Kong, China news reporter Chan said he will mourn the loss of far more than his livelihood.

“With the paper gone, so would the values it represents: pursuit of freedom and democracy,” he said.

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