Missing Hong Kong bookseller's wife drops police report

HONG KONG -- The mystery surrounding five missing Hong Kong booksellers known for titles banned in mainland China deepened after one purportedly wrote a letter saying he was fine and helping with an investigation on the mainland, prompting his wife to drop a missing person's report.

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Hong Kong police said Lee Bo's wife cancelled the report but they would continue investigating the other disappearances. Their statement late Monday didn't say whether Lee had been located.

Five people who vanished since October are associated with publisher Mighty Current, which specializes in books critical of China's Communist Party leaders.

Their disappearances have prompted fears that Beijing is eroding the "one country, two systems" principle that's been in place since Britain ceded control of Hong Kong to China in 1997, maintaining civil liberties there that are nonexistent on the mainland, including freedom of the press.

When Lee vanished last Wednesday, he reportedly did not have a travel permit for mainland China with him, triggering speculation he did not plan to go there and that Chinese security agents abducted him. The four others were last seen either in mainland China or Thailand.

An image of Lee's handwritten letter was published by Taiwan's government-affiliated Central News Agency late Monday and subsequently by Hong Kong media.

The letter, faxed to an employee at the publishing company's Causeway Bay Bookstore in Hong Kong, said: "Due to some urgent matters that I need to handle and that aren't to be revealed to the public, I have made my own way back to the mainland in order to co-operate with the investigation by relevant parties."

"It might take a bit of time," it said. "My current situation is very well. All is normal."

The letter gave no details on the investigation to which it refers.

Britain's Foreign Office confirmed by email that one of the missing booksellers is British, and Hong Kong media report it is Lee. The email said Britain was "deeply concerned" about the case and has "urgently requested" help from local authorities for information on the individual.

Hong Kong police still have missing person's files open for three other staff members or shareholders of the publisher or the bookstore. One of the publishing company's owners, Gui Minhai, is a Swedish national who went missing in Thailand in October, according to Hong Kong media and human rights groups.

Swedish Foreign Ministry spokesman Joakim Edvardsson said Monday the government was "very concerned" about the disappearance of one of its citizens.

Hong Kong media reported that Lee's wife, Choi Ka-ping, asked police to drop the missing person's report after learning of the letter, the authenticity of which could not be independently confirmed. Choi's phone number was written on the fax, but calls to her by The Associated Press went unanswered.

Hong Kong pro-democracy lawmakers and human rights activists were skeptical the letter proved Lee was safe.

"If he did indeed write the letter, it was almost certainly written under duress," said William Nee, Amnesty International's China researcher. "What we see in mainland China all the time is that police and state security put enormous pressure on family members not to speak to media and not to raise a fuss on social media. If indeed it was state security that detained Lee Bo, one wonders whether the same tactics are being used to silence family members here in Hong Kong."

China's nationalist newspaper Global Times slammed the bookshop in an editorial Monday for "profiting on political rumours" and selling books with "trumped-up content."

"Although the Causeway Bay Bookstore is located in Hong Kong, it actually stays in business by disrupting mainland society," the paper said.



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