“This is particularly concerning, unsatisfactory and regrettable,” Fletcher said outside the courthouse, according to a recording. “We have no confidence in the validity of the process, which is being conducted in secret.”

Cheng’s case has raised concerns among foreigners working in China due to the vagueness surrounding the circumstances of his detention. As an English-speaking TV presenter for the state broadcaster CGTN, her work is said to have cast China in a favorable light.

Employees who answered the phone at the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court on Thursday said they could not provide details of the case.

Asked about Cheng’s case on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the judiciary is handling cases according to law. The ministry previously said she was suspected of “illegally providing state secrets to foreign forces”, but did not release further details.

His case comes at a time of strained relations between Australia and China, with the two governments clashing over military, trade and political issues.

An open letter signed by 55 friends and supporters called for Cheng’s release and said they were concerned for her and her children, aged 10 and 12.

“We are confident that she has done nothing wrong and have serious concerns for her health, safety and care,” the letter reads.

Emily Angwin, a former CGTN colleague and fellow Australian, said Cheng’s detention sent shockwaves through their circle of friends and prompted Angwin to leave China. She said Cheng was lively and smart, and brought both a Chinese and Western perspective to her TV show.

“Above and beyond everything, Lei is a mum,” said Angwin, now an Al Jazeera news anchor. “A mom of two young children, who wouldn’t have spoken to her in almost two years.”

Australian officials have regularly raised concerns about Cheng’s well-being and recently visited him on March 21, according to a statement from Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

Around the same time Beijing announced the charges against Cheng in September 2020, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Australian officials searched the homes of several Australian-based Chinese journalists working for the agency in June. official press Xinhua, China Media Group and China Media. News Service, and seized their electronic devices.

Two other Beijing-based Australian journalists, Bill Birtles of the Australian Broadcasting Corp. and Michael Smith of the Australian Financial Review, fled China that month after being visited by state security agents, who told them they could no longer leave the country. After returning to Australia, Birtles said officers questioned him about Cheng.

The timing of Cheng’s detention has raised speculation that it was a blow for a blow for Australian raids on Chinese journalists.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian denied at the time that the events were connected. “I believe those are two different things, and we don’t have to over-interpret that,” he said.

Several other foreigners or employees of foreign companies have been detained in China in recent years for alleged national security violations, with few details released. Legal uncertainties and strict pandemic control measures in China have dampened foreign businessmen’s enthusiasm for working in China, once popular for its booming economy.

Bloomberg News reporter Haze Fan, a Chinese national and friend of Cheng, was arrested in December 2020. Chinese officials said at the time that she was suspected of national security offenses. There was no further information on his case.

Two Canadian nationals, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, were jailed in China in December 2018, days after Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was detained in Canada for fraud related to Huawei’s activities in Iran. The “Two Michaels” were also accused of espionage. They were allowed to return to Canada in September 2021, the same day Meng returned to China.

Peter Greste, spokesman for the Alliance for the Freedom of Journalists, himself detained by the Egyptian government and detained for over a year on national security charges in 2013, said there was a trend on the rise since September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by governments detaining journalists citing national security.

“There is no transparency around Cheng Lei’s case,” he said. “It’s very easy to use national security as a smokescreen.”

Pei Lin Wu contributed to this report.