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UPDATE 2-Australia says journalist arrested in China after months-long detention

· 02/07/2021 22:02
UPDATE 2-Australia says journalist arrested in China after months-long detention

Updates throughout with comment from former ambassador

- Australian journalist Cheng Lei has been formally arrested in China after six months in detention on suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas, Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Monday.

Cheng, who was a high-profile anchor on Chinese state media's English-language channel CGTN, was arrested on Feb. 5, Payne said. Initially detained in mid-August last year, Cheng had regularly attended business functions and embassy events for the Australian community in Beijing.

Payne said 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."

Tensions between Australia and China have been high for the past year, after Canberra called for an international investigation into the source of the coronavirus pandemic and Beijing responded with trade reprisals.

Australia's former ambassador to China, Geoff Raby, said Cheng's case "would seem to go beyond issues in the bilateral relationship".

"Support for Lei is, however, made much more difficult in the absence of high-level contact between the governments," Raby told Reuters.

Payne said officials had visited Cheng, six times during her detention, most recently at the end of January. Cheng's two children, aged nine and eleven, are currently living with family in Australia.

In the days after Cheng's August detention was made public, two Australian foreign correspondents were flown out of China, helped by Australian consular officials after the pair were questioned by China’s state security ministry.

China's Foreign Ministry subsequently revealed that Australia's security agency had questioned Chinese journalists working in Australia in the weeks before Cheng was detained.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on local radio on Monday, before news of Cheng's arrest was made public, that there remained no agreement for ministerial-level exchanges between the two nations to overcome the diplomatic tensions.

(Reporting by Renju Jose and Kirsty Needham; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Jane Wardell)

((renju.jose@thomsonreuters.com; +61 29171 7126;))