Australia says journalist arrested in China after months-long detention

SYDNEY (Reuters) – The family of an Australian journalist arrested in China has pleaded with authorities to grant the former high-profile state TV news anchor access to her two school-age children.

Australian authorities confirmed on Monday that Cheng Lei, 49, was arrested on Feb. 5 on suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas, around six months after she was first detained in mid-August.

“We are absolutely convinced of her innocence,” a family representative said in an emailed statement to Reuters.

Cheng, a business news anchor on Chinese state media’s English-language channel CGTN, where she had worked for almost a decade, had regularly attended business functions and embassy events for the Australian community while working in Beijing.

Payne said the Australian government “has raised its serious concerns about Ms Cheng’s detention regularly at senior levels, including about her welfare and conditions of detention.”

Tensions between Australia and China have been high for the past year, after Canberra called for an international investigation into the source of the coronavirus pandemic and Beijing responded with trade reprisals.

Cheng was born in China but moved with her parents to Australia as a child, and attended university in Queensland. Her children, aged nine and eleven, were visiting their grandparents in Australia amid school closures in Beijing caused by the coronavirus pandemic when the journalist was detained.

“Whilst a long time Australian citizen, Lei also has a great love for the country of her birth and is highly respected across the globe,” the family statement said.

“We respect China’s judicial process and urge the authorities bring this matter to a swift, compassionate and timely conclusion whilst at all times respecting her rights with the knowledge that she is the mother of two young and vulnerable children who need her.”

As well as contact with her children, her family requested Cheng be given access to reading material to safeguard her mental health.

Payne said officials had visited Cheng six times during her detention, most recently at the end of January.

Australia’s former ambassador to China, Geoff Raby, said Cheng’s case “would seem to go beyond issues in the bilateral relationship” between the two countries.

“Support for Lei is, however, made much more difficult in the absence of high-level contact between the governments,” Raby told Reuters.

In the days after Cheng’s August detention was made public, two Australian foreign correspondents were flown out of China, helped by Australian consular officials after the pair were questioned by China’s state security ministry.

China’s Foreign Ministry subsequently revealed that Australia’s security agency had questioned Chinese journalists working in Australia in the weeks before Cheng was detained.

Another Australian, writer Yang Hengjun, is facing trial in Beijing on espionage charges that he denies, after being arrested in January 2019 at Guangzhou airport.