China releases, deports Swede detained over human rights work

BEIJING -- The Chinese government has released and deported a Swedish man it accused of training and funding unlicensed lawyers in the country, leading to an extraordinary taped confession broadcast on state television.

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Swedish embassy spokesman Sebastian Magnusson confirmed Tuesday that Peter Dahlin had left China but was unable to provide further details.

Dahlin, co-founder of China Urgent Action Working Group, was featured in a 10-minute segment on state broadcaster CCTV last week in which he confessed to helping unlicensed lawyers take on cases against the government "in clear violation of the law."

He was arrested Jan. 3 on his way to Beijing's international airport, becoming the first foreigner to become entangled in a wide-ranging crackdown on the country's increasingly assertive legal rights movement.

The Swedish embassy issued a statement Friday in which it expressed "deep concern" over the cases against Dahlin and another detained Swedish national, Gui Minhai.

"Many unanswered questions remain in both cases and we continue to request clarification of what our citizens are being accused of and the formal status of their arrests," the statement said.

In its broadcast, CCTV described how Dahlin established an activist organization in Hong Kong with the help of employees from the human rights-focused Fengrui Law Firm in Beijing, whose lawyers have been charged with subverting state power.

Dahlin's group called the confession "apparently forced" and rejected accusations that it manufactured or escalated conflicts inside China.

The group says it has been working since 2009 to help advance the rule of law by organizing training programs by lawyers for rights defenders focusing on land rights and administrative law. It also releases practical guides on the Chinese legal system.

Under president and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, China's authoritarian government has aggressively pursued those attempting to use the legal system to assert basic rights, framing their advocacy as a challenge to state security. That campaign appears to have intensified over the past year.

Hundreds of lawyers have been rounded up and accused of stirring up hostility toward the government and manufacturing cases to enrich themselves.

Dahlin's group was not legally permitted to operate in mainland China. CCTV said it accepted foreign funding and paid lawyers and petitioners within China, who in turn provided negative information in order to tarnish the country's image.

In the CCTV program, Dahlin said the people his group supported had "gone on to do acts in clear violation of the law." He apologized for hurting "the Chinese government and Chinese people."

The official Xinhua News Agency cited witnesses as saying Dahlin had been planted by "Western anti-China forces" to gather negative information about China and fan opposition to the ruling party.

Gui, the other detained Swede, is a Hong Kong-based publisher of sensitive books banned on the mainland who disappeared in October from his apartment in Pattaya, a Thai beach resort.

He also reappeared last week on CCTV, saying he returned to China to turn himself in for an old crime. His friends insist Gui was forcibly taken away.

Chinese authorities have since 2013 frequently used televised confessions of dissidents and activists on state TV to sway public opinion against them ahead of their trials. At least 18 such confessions have been made by high-profile activists, bloggers and journalists.

The confessions have brought calls from journalists' and human rights organizations for sanctions against CCTV, which has been pushing hard to build its brand internationally to compete with CNN and the BBC.

"By knowingly peddling lies and statements (that) were presumably obtained under duress, CCTV and Xinhua (news agency) become mass propaganda weapons and cease de facto to be news media," Benjamin Ismail, the head of Paris-based Reporters Without Borders' Asia-Pacific desk said in a statement Thursday.


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