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Australian reporter Cheng Lei released after three years detention in China over espionage charges

By Alex Stambaugh, Hilary Whiteman and Nectar Gan, CNN

(CNN) — Australian TV anchor Cheng Lei has been released by China and returned home to her family, Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced Wednesday, more than three years after she was detained on opaque espionage charges.

“We are pleased to confirm that Australian citizen Ms Cheng Lei has arrived safely home in Australia and has been reunited with her family,” Albanese said in a statement.

“Her return will be warmly welcomed not just by her family and friends but by all Australians,” the statement said.

Cheng, a former business anchor for China’s state broadcaster CGTN and mother of two, was accused of illegally supplying state secrets overseas, a charge that carries a possible sentence of between five years to life in prison.

Cheng had been on her way to work on the morning of August 13, 2020, when she was taken by China’s Ministry of State Security, according to her partner Nick Coyle.

Beijing did not reveal details of the allegations against Cheng throughout her three years of detention, and the Chinese court delayed handing down verdict multiple times.

Her release follows the completion of legal process in China, according to the Australian statement.

Shortly afterwards, China’s Ministry of State Security said in a statement that Cheng was deported Wednesday after completing her sentence.

The ministry alleged that Cheng was approached by a “foreign organization” in May 2020 and – in violation of the confidentiality agreement she signed with her employer – provided state secrets she gathered from her work to the organization through her mobile phone.

It claimed Cheng had pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 35 months in prison.

At a regular news briefing later Wednesday, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Chinese judicial authorities heard Cheng’s case and handed down a verdict in accordance with the law and had “fully guaranteed” her rights, including allowing consular visits.

Australian authorities have previously expressed concern about Cheng’s detention amid suggestions from analysts that strained ties between Canberra and Beijing may have provided impetus for the case against her.

Observers have also criticized China’s secretive, closed-door court process for Cheng’s case. China’s court system is notoriously opaque and the conviction rate is above 99 percent.

In March last year, Australia’s ambassador to China was denied entry to the start of Cheng’s trial in Beijing, a move he called “deeply concerning.”

Cases related to national security are typically tried behind closed doors in China. But the lack of transparency in Cheng’s case against the backdrop of deteriorating relations between China and Australia prompted concerns from analysts that the charges may be politically motivated.

Soon after Cheng was detained, two Australian journalists working in China fled the country after authorities attempted to question them on national security grounds, leaving Australia’s media without any journalists in China for the first time in nearly 50 years.

While there were still some Australian journalists working in China, all are employed by non-Australian media companies.

Relations between the two countries have thawed in recent months, with trade increasing and a new Australian government in place.

At the press briefing Wednesday, Wang, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, was asked whether relations between China and Australia will further improve now that Cheng’s case has been resolved.

“A healthy and stable China-Australia relationship serves the interests of the two countries and peoples, and is conducive to peace and stability in the region and the world,” Wang said.

“China is ready to work with Australia to promote the continued improvement and development of relations between the two countries for the betterment of the two peoples.”

For much of Cheng’s detention, there were widespread concerns about her wellbeing. Last June, Coyle told CNN affiliate Sky News Australia that Cheng had faced “difficult health challenges along the way,” exacerbated by an inadequate prison diet.

In a letter published May, Coyle described Cheng spending six months cut off from the outside world, limited to those consular visits, which began every month with Cheng “being led in, blindfolded and handcuffed.”

Since then, she has been placed with other cellmates and given access to an outdoor courtyard for two hours a day, he wrote.

In August, Cheng said in a rare message that she misses her family and life in Australia.

“I miss the sun. In my cell, the sunlight shines through the window but I can stand in it for only 10 hours a year,” she said in a message released by Coyle on the X account he runs, FreeChengLei.

“I haven’t seen a tree in 3 years,” she added.

In what she described as a “love letter” to Australia, Cheng spoke of her nostalgia for her life back home, writing “I miss the Australian people.”

“I miss the sweet encounters of wildlife in Australia, the sea salt whirling in my ear,” she wrote.

“I relive every bushwalk, river, lake, beach with swims and picnics and psychedelic sunsets, sky that is lit up with stars, and the silent and secret symphony of the bush,” she added.

“Most of all I miss my children.”

The-CNN-Wire
™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Mengchen Zhang and Jessie Yeung contributed reporting.

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