Chinese state television broadcast a "confession" by a detained Swedish human rights worker Tuesday night, punctuating a state media offensive accusing him of "endangering national security" by funding grass-roots lawyers and writing reports about the country's human rights record.
Peter Dahlin, a 35-year-old Swedish citizen, appeared on the state broadcaster CCTV to apologize for financially backing Chinese nationals who went on to commit "very serious crimes." Colleagues and outside observers said his comments appeared scripted and were likely made under duress.
Dahlin said in the broadcast that his organization, the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, gave about $500 per month to Chinese "citizen lawyers" who provide legal assistance to victims of government abuse — forced demolitions, police beatings, extralegal abductions. He said the group also gave licensed lawyers about $3,000 to take on "difficult cases."
"I violated Chinese law through my activities here, I've caused harm to the Chinese government, I've hurt the feelings of the Chinese people," Dahlin said, echoing rhetoric that the ruling Communist Party often levels against its critics. "I apologize sincerely for this and I regret that this ever happened." He spoke in slow, deliberate English against a nondescript background and beneath low-key lights.
Dahlin vanished along with his girlfriend while on the way to the Beijing airport late Jan. 3 or early Jan. 4, according to a statement by his organization. China's Foreign Ministry later confirmed that he was detained on suspicion of endangering state security.
His whereabouts remain unknown, and his girlfriend, a Chinese national, remains missing.
The Chinese Urgent Action Working Group called Dahlin's confession "forced," and rejected the agency's accusations as "baseless."
"Accusations of criminal activity involving rights lawyers only show that the authorities consider the promotion of human rights through public interest litigation to be a criminal activity," it said in a statement. "Empowering Chinese citizens with legal knowledge and expanding access to legal aid to the most marginalized has always been the priority of China Action."
Experts say Dahlin appears to have been swept up in a major crackdown on dissent by Communist authorities under President Xi Jinping. Last week, authorities charged seven human rights lawyers and their associates with a count of "subversion of state power," which carries a potential sentence of life in prison. All have been held incommunicado for more than half a year.
Dahlin's confession comes days after Hong Kong-based bookseller Gui Minhai — a Swedish citizen who published several books criticizing China's leadership — gave a teary confession on CCTV admitting to a drunk-driving crime from 2003. Gui went missing in October while at his vacation home in Thailand; four of his colleagues at the Mighty Current publishing house have since disappeared. Many observers believe that they were abducted by mainland security agents.
"These types of pretrial forced confessions have really become a staple of criminal justice under Xi Jinping," said William Nee, a Hong Kong-based spokesman for Amnesty International.
Beginning in 2013, the first full year of Xi's tenure, Chinese state television has broadcast scores of confessions by human rights lawyers, outspoken journalists, wealthy businessmen, even a British citizen: Peter Humphrey, who was jailed in 2014 for "illegally obtaining private information." Humphrey later said that police barred him access to medical care for a prostate problem until he confessed.
Many of the conventions occurred before any judicial proceedings; critics call them a breach of due process that casts doubt on Beijing's oft-stated commitment to bolstering the country's rule of law.
"I think these are probably effective at striking fear into targeted groups — whether that's book publishers in the case of Gui Minhai, or the domestic and foreign NGO community in the case of Peter Dahlin," Nee said. "But I think its tremendously counterproductive from an international-image perspective. They're so highly edited, conspiratorial in tone, and almost certainly made under duress, that they can't possibly be taken seriously by any neutral observer."
The state-run New China News Agency declared Wednesday that authorities have "smashed an illegal organization that sponsored activities jeopardizing China's national security," and that "suspects, including a Swedish man, have been put under coercive measures in line with the criminal law."
In a separate report published just before the broadcast, the agency said that Dahlin also "hired and trained others to gather, fabricate and distort information about China, providing 'China's human rights report' to overseas organizations."
The agency added that Dahlin is being held under "residential surveillance," a form of secret detention that the U.N. Committee Against Torture has said puts "detainees at a high risk of torture or ill-treatment."
The reports connected Dahlin to the attempted flight of a human rights lawyer's teenage son to Southeast Asia after his mother, Wang Yu, was detained last summer. Chinese authorities apprehended the boy, Bao Zhuoxuan, and two rights advocates, Xing Qingxian and Tang Zhishun, after they crossed into Myanmar.
"Xing Qingxian, who I once supported, has broken the law," Dahlin said in the broadcast. "He illegally brought the son of lawyer Wang Yu across the international border."
Yet Xing's wife, He Juan, denied that Xing took money from foreign organizations.
"To my knowledge, my husband's actions had nothing to do with any foreigner. I don't think you can believe a word that Xinhua says," she said in a phone interview, referring to the New China News Agency. "If this Peter guy did make a confession about this on CCTV, I think he must have done it against his own will."
Tommy Yang in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.