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Australian journalist Cheng Lei in Beijing, in this still image taken from undated video footage.

AUSTRALIA GLOBAL ALUMNI/DFAT/Reuters

China has formally arrested a Chinese-born Australian journalist for CGTN, the English-language channel of China Central Television, on suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas, Australia’s foreign minister said Monday.

The arrest of Cheng Lei last Friday starts an official criminal investigation and came six months after she was detained.

“The Australian government has raised its serious concerns about Ms. Cheng’s detention regularly at senior levels, including about her welfare and conditions of detention,” Foreign Minister Marise Payne said.

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“We expect basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment to be met, in accordance with international norms,” she added.

China’s Foreign Ministry confirmed Cheng’s arrest and said her legal rights were being “fully guaranteed.”

“We hope that Australia will earnestly respect China’s judicial sovereignty and refrain from interfering in China’s law-based handling of cases in any way,” ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a daily briefing.

The charges, which could result a penalty of life in prison or even death, are highly unusual for an employee of a media outlet tightly controlled by China’s ruling Communist Party. The British media watchdog Ofcom last week stripped CGTN of its U.K. broadcasting license because of a lack of editorial control and is investigating complaints that it ran forced confessions by suspects involved in political cases.

Worsening bilateral relations since Australia called for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic are suspected to be the cause of Cheng’s arrest.

Cheng’s two children, aged 9 and 11, are living with their grandmother in Melbourne, Australia, the journalist’s niece, Louisa Wen, said.

“I feel like the children don’t fully understand the situation, so it’s probably quite tough on the kids wondering what’s going on,” Wen said. “Every time we do something fun, we’re thinking of her and how she can’t enjoy these things with us.”

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Geoff Raby, chief executive of a Beijing-based business advisory company, said Cheng has been his friend since he was Australia’s ambassador to China for four years ending in 2011.

“She knows how the system operates. She’s very, very knowledgeable and experienced and I just find this whole episode quite astounding,” Raby told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

A month before Cheng was detained on Aug. 13, Australia warned its citizens of a risk of arbitrary detention in China. China dismissed the warning as disinformation.

Before the last two journalists working for Australian media in China left the country in September, they were questioned by Chinese authorities about Cheng.

Australian Broadcasting Corp. reporter Bill Birtles and The Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith were told they were “persons of interest” in an investigation into Cheng.

“I believe the episode was more one of harassment of the remaining Australian journalists rather than a genuine effort to try and get anything useful for that case,” Birtles said after returning to Sydney.

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Australia has criticized China for charging Chinese-Australian spy novelist Yang Hengjun with espionage. He has been detained since January 2019.

Australian Karm Gilespie was sentenced to death in China last year, seven years after he was arrested and charged with attempting to board an international flight with more than 7.5 kilograms (16.5 pounds) of methamphetamine. Some observers suspect that such a severe sentence so long after the crime was related to the bilateral rift.

Cheng was an anchor for CGTN’s BizAsia program. She was born in China and worked in finance in Australia before returning to China and starting a career in journalism with CCTV in Beijing in 2003.

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