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China gives suspended death sentence to Australian writer Yang Hengjun on espionage charges. What does it mean?

Feb 05, 2024 09:00 PM IST

Yang Hengjun, a pro-democracy blogger, was arrested at the Guangzhou airport in 2019.

A court in Beijing on Monday pronounced a suspended death sentence to Australian-Chinese writer Yang Hengjun on charges of espionage, Reuters reported.

This undated, file photo released by Chongyi Feng shows Yang Hengjun and his wife Yuan Xiaoliang.(AP)

Yang, a pro-democracy blogger, was arrested at the Guangzhou airport in 2019. An employee of China's Ministry of State Security from 1989-1999, he had been accused of spying for a country China has not publicly identified. The details of the case against him have not been made public.

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Yang, who gained a huge following in exile for his spy novels and calls for greater freedom in his homeland, has denied the allegations. He also told his supporters that he was tortured at a secret detention site and that he feared forced confessions may be used against him, according to AFP.

"It found that Yang Jun was guilty of espionage, sentenced him to death with a two-year suspended execution, and confiscated all his personal property," China's foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Monday.

What is a suspended death sentence?

According to Reuters, a suspended death sentence in Chinese law gives the accused a two-year reprieve from being executed after which it is automatically converted to life imprisonment, or more rarely, a fixed-term imprisonment.

Under a suspended death sentence, the individual remains in prison throughout.

Human rights advocates argue that a suspended death sentence is an unusually harsh verdict in an espionage-related case.

"It has been used more commonly in recent years as a way to reduce the prevalence of executions without abolishing the death penalty altogether," Ryan Mitchell, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, was quoted as saying by Reuters.

Mitchell adds that the exact prevalence of death sentences, including suspensions, is treated by China as a state secret.

"The sentence is used for a wide range of cases, and isn't associated with one particular type of crime," Mitchell adds. He said that it is often used for offences regarded as having "serious negative social impact" such as drug trafficking.

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