A Beijing court on Monday handed down a suspended death sentence to Australian-Chinese writer Yang Hengjun on espionage charges, Reuters reported.
Yang, a pro-democracy blogger, was arrested at Guangzhou airport in 2019. An employee of China’s Ministry of State Security between 1989 and 1999, he had been accused of spying for a country that China has not publicly identified. Details of the case against him have not been made public.
Yang, who gained a large following in exile for his spy novels and calls for greater freedom in his homeland, has denied the allegations. He also told his followers that he was tortured in a secret detention site and that he feared forced confessions would be used against him, according to AFP.
“He determined that Yang Jun was guilty of espionage, sentenced him to death with a two-year suspended execution, and confiscated all his personal assets,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Monday.
What is a suspended death sentence?
According to Reuters, the suspended death sentence provided for in Chinese law grants the accused a deferral of execution for two years, after which it automatically converts to a life sentence or, more rarely, a fixed-term prison.
In the case of a suspended death sentence, the individual remains in prison for the entire time.
Human rights advocates argue that a suspended death sentence is an unusually harsh verdict in a case involving espionage.
“It has been used more commonly in recent years as a way to reduce the prevalence of executions without abolishing the death penalty entirely,” said Ryan Mitchell, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, quoted by Reuters.
Mitchell adds that China treats the exact prevalence of death sentences, including suspensions, as a state secret.
“The sentence is used for a wide range of cases and is not associated with a particular type of crime,” adds Mitchell. She said it is often used for crimes that are considered to have “serious negative social impact,” such as drug trafficking.