Australia on Monday criticised the treatment of a Chinese-born Australian writer detained by Beijing for almost a year and called for more details on his case, raising the prospect of renewed prickly relations between the Asian neighbours.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Australian consular officials who recently visited Yang Hengjun had reported “unacceptable” conditions, including isolation and daily interrogations, sometimes while he was shackled.
The public rebuke is likely to draw a negative response from China, which is Australia’s largest trading partner. Previous diplomatic spats have resulted in disruptions to coal exports and wine shipments.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the welfare of an Australian citizen was paramount, adding that his country had been raising concerns about Yang’s imprisonment “for some time.”
“Australia always has to stand up for our citizens and we have to be true to who we are as a people,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.
Beijing has bristled previously when Australia has publicly raised the case of Yang, a former Chinese diplomat turned online journalist and blogger, who was formally arrested in August on suspicion of espionage, seven months after he was originally detained in the southern city of Guangzhou.
Espionage is punishable by death in China.
Although Yang’s more recent writings had mostly avoided Chinese politics, he became prominent in the early 2000s when he earned the nickname “democracy peddler”.
Morrison said Australia wanted to see clear details of the case against Yang, and to ensure that he had access to his lawyers and family members.
One of Yang’s Australian lawyers, Sarah Condon, said China’s Ministry of State Security was giving 54-year-old Yang several medications daily because they had diagnosed high blood pressure and kidney function issues.
“We’re concerned because he went in as a fit and healthy man,” Condon told Reuters. “Now he has this purported diagnosis and is being fed a concoction of drugs.”
Morrison commented on the case as he announced that Australia will spend A$87.8 million ($59.58 million) to create a new taskforce to tackle foreign interference.
The Australian leader did not specifically cite China, but Canberra has become increasingly wary about Beijing’s influence within Australia and across the Pacific.
Earlier this year, Reuters reported Canberra had determined that Beijing was responsible for a cyber-attack on Australia’s parliament and three largest political parties, just months out from an election.
China denied it was behind the attack. It last month refused two Australian lawmakers visas to enter China.
China buys more than one-third of the Australia’s total exports and sends more than a million tourists and students there each year.