Chinese authorities detained a Swedish human rights worker this month on suspicion of “endangering state security,” his organization said, marking a rare detention of a foreigner amid a sweeping crackdown on dissent.
The nonprofit Chinese Urgent Action Working Group said in a statement this week that Peter Dahlin, a Swedish national and long-term Beijing resident, went missing en route to Beijing’s main airport “sometime” after 9 p.m. Jan. 3, when he was scheduled to fly to Thailand. His girlfriend, a Chinese woman, is also missing.
Dahlin, 35, founded the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, a small operation that provided training programs for rural “barefoot” lawyers who defend victims of perceived rights abuses ranging “from demolition and eviction to arbitrary detention,” the statement said.
Dahlin appears to have been caught up in a recent crackdown on all forms of dissent overseen by Chinese authorities.
In recent years under leader Xi Jinping, authorities have detained hundreds of human rights lawyers, labor activists, bloggers and nonprofit workers for nonviolent acts of protest that were for many years tolerated or overlooked.
“This is as astonishing as it is desperate,” Lionel Jensen, associate professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Notre Dame, said in an email. “However, this action is just the most recent in an extra-legal or illegal pattern of apprehending civil rights lawyers whose success in laboring in the courts against the government’s routine, flippant violation of law must be met with incarceration.”
The organization said Dahlin suffers from Addison’s disease, “a rare defect of the adrenal gland, which is potentially life-threatening unless properly medicated daily.” The statement also said authorities have “issued a verbal assurance” that Dahlin has been allowed to take his medications, but have kept him in a secret location and denied him consular visits. That “the authorities have continued to conceal Peter’s whereabouts could amount to an enforced disappearance, a violation of international law,” it said.
Sebastian Magnusson, spokesman for the Swedish Embassy, said Wednesday that a “Swedish citizen, a man in his mid-30s, is detained in China.” He added that “the embassy in China is investigating the matter,” without giving further details.
Beijing plans to soon pass a sweeping “Foreign NGO Management Law,” which critics say will severely restrict such nongovernment organizations’ ability to operate in the country.
“It seems that the thinking behind [the law] is consistent with this case, in which they see foreign civil society as a threat to national security and the public interest,” said William Nee, a Hong Kong-based spokesman for Amnesty International.
Nee said China has expelled a handful of foreigners in recent years for their work with Chinese human rights advocates.
“The police never explicitly, or formally, brought any charges against them, not to mention charges of endangering state security,” he said. “I definitely think this case is different in that regard.”
In the last week, authorities have also arrested four Chinese human rights activists on the charge of “subverting state power,” which carries a potential life sentence, rights groups reported; they have been in custody since last summer.