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Journalist Detained in China Denied Phone Calls, Partner Says

FILE - Cheng Lei, a Chinese-born Australian journalist for CGTN, the English-language channel of China Central Television, attends a public event in Beijing, China, Aug. 12, 2020.
FILE - Cheng Lei, a Chinese-born Australian journalist for CGTN, the English-language channel of China Central Television, attends a public event in Beijing, China, Aug. 12, 2020.

The Australian partner of a journalist who has been detained in China for nearly two years said Thursday she is being denied the chance to speak with her family and consular staff, and her health is declining due to a poor prison diet.

Journalist Cheng Lei, an Australian who was born in China, was detained in August 2020 on charges of suspicion of sharing state secrets. In March, she was tried in Beijing, but Australian diplomats weren't allowed inside the courtroom.

Since the trial, Chinese authorities have deferred announcing a verdict. Cheng, 46, had worked as a business journalist for Chinese state broadcaster China Global Television Network.

Speaking about the case publicly for the first time in an interview with Australia's Sky News, Cheng's partner Nick Coyle said he was worried "big time" for her health and about the lack of access she was getting to her family and Australian consular staff.

Coyle told Sky News that her regular 30-minute consular video meetings have been suspended indefinitely, apparently due to China's tough coronavirus restrictions.

"I find that just totally unacceptable," Coyle said. "These monthly consular visits have literally been what's kept her going for 20 months."

"She's been able to make no phone calls with anybody. She's had maybe three visits from her lawyer, just to prepare for the trial," Coyle said. "She's had not one phone call with family, with her children. Nothing. Nada."

Cheng is the mother of two children who live in Australia, and her parents also live in Australia.

Coyle worked as chief executive of the China-Australia Chamber of Commerce in Beijing before leaving China due to fears he had for his safety.

Coyle said Cheng had some health issues and her condition had declined since she had been detained and fed a poor and inadequate diet. He said she once joked with him that his Starbucks coffee cost more than a week's worth of her food.

"Fortunately, we're dealing with about the strongest person I know, mentally, emotionally, but there have been really difficult health challenges along the way," Coyle told Sky News.

Coyle said he still has no idea what Cheng is supposed to have done wrong. He said she wasn't even that interested in politics, instead focusing on business.

"It doesn't make any sense to me," he said. "It never has."

Her detention came during a time of deteriorating diplomatic relations between China and Australia.

At Cheng's trial in March, Australian Ambassador to China Graham Fletcher told reporters outside the court that he'd been told he couldn't attend because the trial involved state secrets.

"This is deeply concerning, unsatisfactory and very regrettable," Fletcher said at the time. "We can have no confidence in the validity of the process which is conducted in secret."

Australia would continue to advocate for Cheng's rights and interests in accordance with the consular agreement between China and Australia, Fletcher said at the time.

After the trial, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the verdict would be announced at an unspecified later date. Wang said that because the trial involved state secrets it was held in closed session, but Cheng and her defense lawyer had been present.

China does not recognize dual citizenship and Chinese-born defendants are often not afforded the same treatment as other foreign nationals, particularly when facing espionage charges.

Born in China, Cheng graduated from the University of Queensland. She worked as an accountant and financial analyst in Australia before moving to China in 2001, where she has worked since as a journalist.