China detains and accuses Swede of harming state security

BEIJING: A Swedish co-founder of a human rights group in China has been detained by authorities on suspicion of endangering state security, the Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed Wednesday.

The detention of Peter Dahlin comes as President Xi Jinping intensifies a crackdown on civil society to snuff out any potential opposition to the ruling Communist Party.

Dahlin's group, the China Urgent Action Working Group, said in a statement Tuesday that the 35-year-old was detained on the evening of January 3 on his way to Beijing's main airport, where he was due to fly to Thailand via Hong Kong, and that his whereabouts were not known. His Chinese girlfriend has also disappeared.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said that Dahlin "is suspected of endangering China's state security," and that he is subject to "criminal coercive measures" — a term that refers to a form of detention.

Endangering state security is a category in China's criminal law for a number of offenses, including subversion of state power, separatism and espionage. The maximum sentence for some offenses in this category is the death penalty, although it also allows for foreigners to be deported.

Hong said Dahlin's case was still under investigation. "China will safeguard lawful rights of foreigners in China and will assist the Swedish Embassy in China in carrying out its consular services," he added.

The China Urgent Action Working Group said that authorities had not disclosed any details of the charges or Dahlin's whereabouts, or allowed consular visits.

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

The group said that it "has only ever advocated nonviolent, informed reliance on Chinese law," and that Dahlin had been "arbitrarily detained on spurious accusations."

It said that Dahlin suffers from Addison's Disease, a rare defect of the adrenal gland that requires daily medication. Chinese authorities, who have denied medical care to detained human rights defenders in the past, "have merely issued a verbal assurance that Peter is receiving his medicine," the group said.

Gabriella Augustsson, spokeswoman for the Swedish Embassy in Beijing, said that she could confirm that a 35-year-old Swedish male citizen had been detained in China and that the embassy was investigating.

Under President Xi's watch, China has been cracking down on human rights activists and the lawyers who defend them, detaining them and in some cases their family members.

This week, at least two lawyers and an intern lawyer were formally arrested on suspicion of subversion against state power about six months after they were taken away.

China has also released a draft law on the management of foreign nongovernmental organizations that would bring them under police supervision.

Although the law is still in draft form, "it appears that police are already emboldened by the draft and the recently passed National Security Law to detain a foreign national working on rule of law issues," said Frances Eve, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

The National Security Law calls for tougher measures against online attacks, theft of secrets and the spread of illegal or harmful information, but critics say its vagueness leaves the door open to even tighter control of civil society.