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Journalist Cheng Lei returned to Australia after 38 months detained in China

Jailed Chinese television journalist Cheng Lei touched down at Melbourne Airport in Australia on Wednesday after being freed from 38 months' detention in China on accusations of passing state secrets to a foreign country. Photo courtesy CGTN
Jailed Chinese television journalist Cheng Lei touched down at Melbourne Airport in Australia on Wednesday after being freed from 38 months' detention in China on accusations of passing state secrets to a foreign country. Photo courtesy CGTN

Oct. 11 (UPI) -- Jailed Chinese television journalist Cheng Lei arrived back home in Australia on Wednesday after being held in China for more than three years.

Cheng, 48, whose detention in 2020 on accusations of espionage lasted 38 months and threw fire on already tense Australia-China relations, was met at Melbourne Airport by Foreign Minister Penny Wong.

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"We are pleased to confirm that Australian citizen Ms. Cheng Lei has arrived safely home in Australia and has been reunited with her family, after more than three years of detention in China," Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said in a statement.

"The Australian Government has been seeking Ms. Cheng's return since she was detained in August 2020. Her return will be warmly welcomed not just by her family and friends but by all Australians."

Shortly afterward Wednesday, Albanese confirmed Cheng's release had cleared the way for him to visit China before the end of the year at a "mutually agreed" date.

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Chinese-born Cheng was working as a business news anchor for China's state-run English-language CGTN when she was detained and held for six months before being formally arrested in February 2021 on suspicion of "illegally supplying state secrets overseas."

During her detention the mother of two, who moved to Australia from China when she was 10, spent at least six months in solitary confinement as authorities attempted to coerce her into confessing her guilt.

The former CNBC journalist was tried in a secret one-day trial in March 2022 but the charges against her were never officially revealed and the true outcome of the case remains unknown.

Cheng had been deported after completing a sentence for charges to which she had pled guilty, China's Ministry of State Security said.

Chinese state media reported that the sentence was for breaking the law on passing state secrets to a foreign country, but did not state which country or any specifics of the crimes she is alleged to have committed.

Behind-the-scenes diplomacy resulting in the lifting of a ban on imports of Australian barley, coal and timber helped smooth ties strained over China's increasing assertiveness in the region and COVID-19, unblocking the road toward Cheng's release. Albanese said he formally raised Cheng's case when he met Chinese Premier Li Qiang in September at the meeting of the G20 in India.

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"We sat next to each other at the G20 at a formal dinner as well. It was an opportunity in a less formal way to be able to have discussions and dialogue," he said. "Dialogue is always a good idea. Even with people who you have disagreements with."

The news was warmly greeted by the Liberal opposition's leader, Peter Dutton, and his foreign affairs spokesman, Simon Birmingham.

"Ms. Cheng's release and return home to her children and partner Nick Coyle will be a moment of great relief and joy to them," they said in a statement.

"We thank all of those who have worked tirelessly over three years to secure this outcome and acknowledge everyone who has advocated for Ms. Cheng's release. Particular acknowledgment is owed to Australia's Ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher, along with many Foreign Affairs and Trade Department officers and consular officials."

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