MELBOURNE, Australia -- Lawyers for the first person to be charged under Australia's foreign interference laws insisted in court Friday that a donation to a hospital made via a federal government minister was not a covert attempt to curry favor on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party.
Melbourne businessman and local community leader Di Sanh Duong, 68, has pleaded innocent in the Victoria state county court to a charge of preparing for or planning an act of foreign interference. Vietnam-born Duong, who came to Australia in 1980 as a refugee, faces a potential 10-year prison sentence if convicted in the landmark case.
He is the first person to be charged under federal laws created in 2018 that ban covert foreign interference in domestic politics and make industrial espionage for a foreign power a crime. The laws offended Australia's most important trading partner, China, and accelerated a deterioration in bilateral relations.
The allegation centers on a novelty check that Duong handed then-Cabinet minister Alan Tudge at a media event in June 2020 as a donation toward the Royal Melbourne Hospital's pandemic response.
The donation, then equivalent to $25,800, now $24,200, had been raised from Melbourne's local Chinese diaspora.
Defense lawyer Peter Chadwick told the jury Duong denied "in the strongest possible terms" prosecutors' allegations that he had attempted to influence Tudge with the check. Duong was the local president of the community group Oceania Federation of Chinese Organizations, a global group for people of Chinese heritage from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
Chadwick also denied that Duong, who is widely known as Sunny, had been recruited by or collaborated with anyone associated with the Chinese Communist Party.
"The fear of covid hung like a dark cloud over the Chinese community in Melbourne," Chadwick told the court.
"It is against this backdrop that Mr. Duong and other ethnic Chinese members of our community decided that they wanted to do something to change these unfair perceptions," Chadwick added.
Prosecutors allege Duong told colleagues he expected Tudge would become Australia's next conservative prime minister. But Tudge quit Parliament this year, several months after the center-left Labor Party won elections.
Duong stood as a candidate for the conservative Liberal Party in Victoria elections in 1996 and had remained active in party politics.
Party official Robert Clark testified on Friday that he dismissed as "very superficial and naïve" several of Duong's policy suggestions.
The suggestions included China building Australia's first high-speed train line between Melbourne and Brisbane.
Prosecutors opened their case on Thursday with allegations that Duong had secret links to global efforts to advance the interests of the Chinese Communist Party.
"Before you start thinking of spy novels and James Bond films, this is not really a case about espionage," prosecutor Patrick Doyle told the jury.
"It's not really a case about spies as such. It's a case about a much more subtle form of interference. It's about influence," Doyle added.
The trial continues next week.