Chinese authorities have formally arrested Australian journalist Cheng Lei on suspicion of “illegally supplying state secrets overseas” almost half a year after she was first detained.
Ms Cheng has been held since August last year under a form of detention that allows Chinese police to imprison and question a suspect for up to six months without giving them access to her lawyers.
But Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Chinese authorities advised Australia late last week that they’d formally arrested Ms Cheng, meaning an official investigation into her conduct would now begin.
“We have consistently raised concerns (about Cheng Lei) regularly at the most senior levels,” Senator Payne said.
“We have made a number of consular visits to her as part of our bilateral consular agreement — the most recent of those was on the 27th of January — and we continue to seek assurances of her being treated appropriately, humanely and in accordance with international standards, and that will continue to be the case.”
Ms Cheng was working as a high profile anchor for China’s state-run English language news service, CGTN.
Senator Payne said the charges against her were “broad” and she expected the investigation to continue for months.
When asked if the Australian Government believed the allegations against Ms Cheng were baseless, she said Australia was “seeking further advice in relation to the charges”.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Ms Cheng’s rights were “guaranteed” and that China was a “law-based country”.
“China’s judicial authorities have carried out investigation in accordance with the law, they concluded this Australian citizen conducted illegal activities on supplying state secrets overseas so in accordance with law they approved her arrest of February 5. This case is underway,” according to a translation of the press conference.
“We hope the Australian side will respect China’s judicial authority and stop interfering in China’s legal handling of this case in any way.”
Ms Cheng has two young children living with her family in Melbourne.