(NEW YORK) — PEN America strongly condemns a Chinese court’s decision to give Australian novelist, pro-democracy blogger, and political commentator Yang Hengjun a suspended death sentence and calls for his immediate and unconditional release.

“This is the latest example of the Chinese government’s use of blatantly unjust and disproportionate legal penalties as a means of controlling and intimidating writers, artists, and other cultural workers who dare express dissident views,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Director of Writers At Risk. “We call on Chinese authorities to free Yang immediately and ensure his safe passage so that he may receive urgently needed medical care in Australia.”

This latest sentence comes five years after Yang was originally arrested and detained for allegedly spying on the Chinese government and three years after a speedy closed-door trial on espionage charges during which he was denied adequate access to legal counsel, Australian consular officials, and his family. 

According to the terms of the current sentence, if Yang exhibits “good behavior” in the probationary two years, his sentence can be commuted to life in prison, according to Australian officials. 

Yang, a former Chinese diplomat who now holds Australian citizenship, has used his writing to advance human rights and greater freedoms in China through blog posts and other political and social commentary; he has also penned a popular series of spy novels banned in China. On January 19, 2019, Yang was detained upon arrival in China and initially held incommunicado for six months, where he was reportedly tortured. He was formally arrested in August on suspicion of espionage, without any evidence of this charge presented to the public. During his two years of pre-trial detention, Yang was not allowed family visits and was allegedly coerced to testify, tortured, and denied medical treatment, all of which significantly affected his health.

According to PEN America’s 2022 Freedom to Write Index, China is the world’s leading jailer of writers and public intellectuals for the fourth consecutive year. Writers, journalists, bloggers, and creative artists face censorship, harassment, imprisonment, and enforced disappearance because of their writing or creative expression. Topics deemed off-limits include discussion of government policies like those around the COVID-19 pandemic, rights of ethnic and religious minorities, women and LGBTQ+ rights, imprisoned human rights defenders, social issues, corruption, and the lack of democratic reform. Yang’s suspended death sentence represents the latest in an ongoing state-wide crackdown on freedom of expression under China’s current government.