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Australian writer Yang Hengjun is seen in a July 2014 photo taken from video.HANDOUT/Reuters

Australia on Wednesday criticized China for formally charging a Chinese-Australian writer with espionage during the coronavirus pandemic.

Yang Hengjun was taken into custody upon arriving in China from New York in January 2019 with his wife, Yuan Xiaoliang, and his 14-year-old stepdaughter.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said her government “strongly objects” to news that China had formally charged the 54-year-old spy novelist and democracy advocate.

“Crises are a time for nations to pull together. It is not in the spirit of mutual respect and trust that our continued advocacy for Dr. Yang has not been acknowledged,” Payne said in a statement.

The Chinese Embassy described Payne’s statement as “deplorable.”

“The Chinese relevant authorities are investigating the case in accordance with Chinese law,” an embassy statement said. “We urge the Australian side to respect China’s judicial sovereignty and refrain from interfering in the legal process in any form.”

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Yang was “suspected of engaging in criminal activities that endangers the national security of the People’s Republic of China.”

Consular visits would be arranged “after the epidemic situation has improved,” Geng said.

Payne said China had refused Australia consular access to Yang since Dec. 30 because of COVID-19 concerns. Australia had requested telephone or written contact instead but had been refused.

“This is unacceptable treatment of an Australian citizen,” Payne said.

Yang’s poor health made him especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Australia has appealed for humanitarian considerations to apply to Yang’s situation, Payne said.

“We deeply regret that for over a year, our requests have not been taken up. Dr. Yang has had no access to legal representation and has been held in harsh conditions that have been detrimental to his physical and mental health,” Payne said.

Australia called for Yang’s immediate release and that he be allowed to leave China and travel to Australia with his wife.

“We have asked repeatedly that basic international standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment apply,” Payne said.

Some analysts suspect Yang has been detained because of Chinese anger over Australian legislation passed by Parliament in 2018 that outlaws covert foreign interference in Australian politics and institutions.

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