Australian journalist Chen Lei faces spy charges in closed-door Beijing trial

Australian journalist Beijing
Image: Australia Global Alumni
  • Australian journalist Cheng Lei, an anchor for Chinese state-run outlet CGTN for nearly a decade, faced allegations of “supplying state secrets” at a closed-door trial in Beijing court on Thursday.
  • Lei was originally detained in 2020 before she was formally arrested in February last year over state secrets charges.
  • International journalists and diplomats were not permitted to enter the courtroom.
  • “This is deeply concerning, unsatisfactory and regrettable,” said Graham Fletcher, Australia’s ambassador in Beijing. “We can have no confidence in the validity of a process which is conducted in secret.”
  • The court deferred its verdict when the trial ended in less than a day.

An Australian journalist accused by the Chinese government of “supplying state secrets” faced a closed-door trial in Beijing court on Thursday. 

Cheng Lei, a television anchor for the Chinese state-run outlet CGTN for nearly a decade, was tried in court after being detained for over 19 months. 

She was originally detained in 2020 before Chinese authorities formally arrested her in February last year over state secrets charges. No other details about the arrest were released to the public.

Foreign observers, including journalists and diplomats, were barred from entering the courtroom. The trial ended in less than a day, with the court deferring its verdict.

The Australian ambassador to Beijing, Graham Fletcher, said he was told by a court official that he was not allowed in the courthouse because the trial involved “state secrets.”

“This is deeply concerning, unsatisfactory and regrettable,” Fletcher was quoted as saying. “We can have no confidence in the validity of a process which is conducted in secret.”

In China, trials that concern national security are usually conducted in secret and completed in one day. It is also not unusual for verdicts and sentences in such cases to follow months later. 

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne criticized the proceedings, noting that: “The Australian government respects the sovereignty of China’s legal system. However, Ms. Cheng’s case has lacked transparency and the Australian government has never been provided with details of the charges.”

While the charges against Lei usually carry a sentence of five to 10 years imprisonment, she could receive a much longer sentence depending on how the court views the severity of the alleged crime. 

“Since Ms. Cheng was detained in August 2020, the Australian government has consistently stated the fundamental importance of procedural fairness, basic standards of justice and China’s international legal obligations,” Payne added.

Lei reportedly spent six months detained in “residential surveillance at a designated location” after her capture in 2020. At the time, Lei’s family sought the help of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to find clues about her status. 

Payne said Australian representatives were able to meet Lei only on Monday.

Originally from China, Lei moved to Australia, where she eventually acquired citizenship and raised two children. She returned to China to pursue a television career, starting with CNBC and later as an anchor for the English-language channel CGTN.

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