China formally arrests Australian journalist after 6 months of heavily-criticized detention

China formally arrested Australian journalist Cheng Lei on Friday “on suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas.” The formal arrest comes six months after Lei was first taken into custody under controversial Chinese detention laws.

Australian Senator and Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne issued a statement announcing the formal arrest, noting that “[t]he Australian Government has raised its serious concerns about Ms Cheng’s detention regularly at senior levels, including about her welfare and conditions of detention.”

Cheng worked for Beijing-based state-owned English news outlet CGTN as a news anchor between 2012 and 2020. Details about the activities leading to her arrest are largely unavailable. At a press conference, Wang Wenbin, Spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China, declined to communicate the name of the country Lei is suspected of supplying state secrets to, and whether her family’s request to provide access to her will be granted.

Cheng was detained by Chinese authorities in August under Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL), provided for by China’s Criminal Procedure Law. Persons detained under RSDL can be held for up to six months without charges or trial. They can be restricted from accessing lawyers, have their location withheld, and be subjected to intense interrogation or torture. RSDL is the form of detention commonly used by Chinese authorities to hold persons it believes threaten national security. Its use is heavily criticized and is seen to contravene international human rights standards.

Wang stated:

The Chinese judiciary, after investigation in accordance with law, approved the arrest of suspected criminal Cheng Lei, an Australian citizen, on February 5 on suspicion of illegally providing state secrets to foreign forces in accordance with the Criminal Procedure Law of the People’s Republic of China. The case is still is the process of handling. The Chinese judicial authorities handle the case in accordance with law and fully protect her rights.

Wang implored Australia to let China handle the arrest, stating, “We hope the Australian side will respect China’s judicial sovereignty and stop interfering in China’s handling of cases in accordance with law in any form.” Although not explicitly addressing whether Australia will interfere, Payne noted that Australia expects “basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment to be met, in accordance with international norms.”