Peter Dahlin, a Swedish human rights worker who was detained in China last January before being expelled from the country, has given two lengthy interviews providing more details about the circumstances behind his detention. Dahlin was targeted for his work as a founder of Chinese Urgent Action Working Group (aka China Action), a group that worked on legal aid issues. He describes his treatment during his 23 days of detention, which included sleep deprivation, blindfolds, and technology-assisted interrogations. Tom Phillips of The Guardian reports:
About 15 miles south of Dahlin’s hutong home, not far from Beijing’s Nanyuan military airbase, is a drab, four-storey office block used for the interrogation of those deemed enemies of the Chinese state. “Basically, it is a secret prison,” says Dahlin.
In the early hours of Monday 4 January a convoy of police vehicles pulled up in the ground-floor garage of the U-shaped installation. Blindfolded, the activist was led out of one of the cars, into a lift and then along a corridor into a second-floor interrogation room.
“You sort of just freeze … It was sort of expected but still you realise that this could end badly – or this could end very badly.”
[…] As night fell on the covert prison, unnerving sounds found their way into the activist’s cell from other parts of The Residence, which Dahlin estimated had been built to house about eight prisoners. “I could hear raised voices. I could hear muffled sounds of what I assumed would be someone slammed against the wall and floor.
“I was quite prepared that there was going to be six months of this. That was my timeframe. I was counting the days in my head.” [Source]
Much of the questioning focused on the Chinese activists and rights lawyers that his organization worked with, as well as foreign sources of funding, in what he believes was an effort to paint his group as a “hostile foreign force” and thereby implicate his Chinese associates in a scheme to overthrow the Chinese government. But as Dahlin points out in a subsequent interview with China Change’s Cao Yaxue, the process through which he was detained and expelled violated several provisions of Chinese law:
As far as the law is concerned, I was placed under residential surveillance and investigated for violation of Article 107 — using foreign funding for illegal and subversive activities. But besides accusing me of supporting Su Changlan’s alleged protests and of me being the mastermind behind Xing Qingxian and Tang Zhishun’s alleged crime of taking Bao Zhuoxuan, the son of Wang Yu and Bao Longjun, across China’s borders, they could not really pinpoint any activity that I had undertaken that would be illegal (besides illegal business operations, which is not a national security crime). And I had nothing to do with these two incidents anyway.
Their argument that actions supported by us would challenge national security, based on the National Security Law, is easily dismissible. They did spend time picking on our operating in the mainland without registration, and thus failing to pay tax, but that was not the crime I was accused of and it seemed just a minor issue for them.
In the end, I was deported under the new Espionage Law, but was not allowed to receive any documentation of any kind about any step in the legal process against me: the list of confiscated items, the house search, personal search, detention, residential surveillance, deportation, and the ban from entering China for 10 years — nothing.
Also, deportation under criminal charges would require a court decision, with notification to the embassy, myself, and the allowance of a lawyer, even if only a state-appointed one — but none of those things happened. That would render the process itself illegal, since deportation can only be decided by the police if it’s part of an administrative punishment, and if the latter is true I would first have to be released from criminal detention and moved to an administrative detention facility. Even with the world watching, China’s police and justice system couldn’t even operate, despite having such a wide range of tools and exceptions available, within their own law. [Source]
The activities of foreigners working on legal and rights-related issues in China–as well as Chinese civil society groups more generally–have been subjected to tighter scrutiny under the Xi Jinping administration. Groups like Dahlin’s are now more restricted under the Foreign NGO Management Law, which came into effect January 1. The law aims to limit and control the activities of foreign groups operating in China by requiring them to register with the public security bureau and find a Chinese sponsor. For more on the implications of the new law, listen to an interview with Human Rights Watch’s Sophie Richardson on the China Power podcast.
Two other foreigners caught up in China’s legal system, Canadian Christian aid workers Kevin and Julia Garratt, were released in August after two years in detention on charges of spying and stealing state secrets. In a recent interview with Dan Levin of the New York Times, the couple described their detention and their fears that they remain under Chinese surveillance back home in Canada:
They each faced daily six-hour interrogations by a team of three men. Armed with years of emails, Skype messages and surveillance records, the interrogators accused the Garratts of “hosting” foreign diplomats at their coffee shop, taking orders from Canada’s intelligence agency and stealing state secrets, the couple said.
The agents showed them photos of United States and Canadian diplomats who had visited their coffee shop. The interrogators claimed Mr. Garratt’s photos of street scenes in Dandong and views of North Korea across the Yalu River were espionage, even though tourists on riverboat trips took the same photos every day.
Ms. Garratt was forced to write confessions detailing her every conversation with embassy officials, a difficult task considering she had spoken to many foreign customers and did not know who they were. They also made her list the names, relationships and phone numbers of people in China and Canada she had emailed, going back more than a decade.
“When they pushed really hard, they’d threaten to take my son,” she said, referring to Peter, who was studying at a university in China at the time. [Source]