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Chinese authorities urged to free 'disappeared' booksellers

Abduction, arbitrary detention harm free speech in Hong Kong and beyond

A poster featuring five missing Hong Kong booksellers is displayed at the entrance of the closed Causeway Bay Bookstore, in Hong Kong, 5 February 2016
A poster featuring five missing Hong Kong booksellers is displayed at the entrance of the closed Causeway Bay Bookstore, in Hong Kong, 5 February 2016

AP Photo/Kin Cheung

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 10 February 2016.

Chinese authorities should immediately release five booksellers who the government has forcibly disappeared, Human Rights Watch said today. The five are affiliated with the Hong Kong-based Mighty Current Media, known for publishing books critical of senior Chinese leaders.

“The Chinese government should immediately release the five booksellers it abducted and 'disappeared' under the guise of law enforcement,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Beijing's actions are a clumsy attack on free speech in Hong Kong that has implications far beyond the fate of the five being held.”

Hong Kong authorities said on February 4, 2016, that mainland authorities had written confirming that “criminal compulsory measures” had been taken against Hong Kong residents Lui Por, Cheung Chi Ping, and Lam Wing Kee for alleged “illegal activities.” The three had been missing since mid-October 2015, with virtually no information regarding their whereabouts or the basis of their detention. A fourth bookseller, Gui Minhai, and a fifth, Lee Bo, went missing from Thailand and Hong Kong, respectively, and are believed to have been abducted by Chinese security agents, as there have been no records of them leaving those territories.

Under international law, a government commits an enforced disappearance when state agents take a person into custody and then deny holding the person, or conceal or fail to disclose the person's whereabouts. Family members and legal representatives are not informed of the person's location, well-being, or legal status. “Disappeared” people are often at high risk of torture and other ill-treatment.

Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen who is the co-owner of Hong Kong Mighty Current publishing house, went missing from Pattaya, Thailand, in mid-October 2015. In mid-January, CCTV, China's state television network, broadcast a “confession” by Gui in which he said he had returned voluntarily to the mainland to face charges related to a 2003 drunk-driving incident. Subsequent state media reports said Gui is now being investigated for other unspecified “criminal activities,” and that others have been investigated in connection with him. Gui has not had access to a lawyer, family members, or representatives of the Swedish government.

In mid-October 2015, Causeway Bay Books general manager Lui Por, business manager Cheung Chi Ping, and manager Lam Wing Kee, who at the time were believed to be in Shenzhen and Dongguan in China's Guangzhou province, went missing. Mainland authorities provided no information as to their whereabouts or well-being. There is no evidence that they have had access to lawyers or family members.

Any Hong Kong residents detained in connection to criminal investigations in the mainland should be afforded the same basic rights of Chinese nationals under China's laws, such as access to lawyers and notification of families, as well as their rights under international law, Human Rights Watch said. In addition, the relevant Hong Kong authorities are obliged to provide assistance by liaising and communicating with their Chinese counterparts about their cases.

On December 30, 2015, Lee Bo, a British citizen and Hong Kong resident who ran Causeway Bay Books, went missing after being seen at Mighty Current's Chai Wan warehouse. His wife, Choi Ka-ping, said Lee's travel documents remained at home. Choi later received a letter purporting to be from Lee Bo, stating that he was in the mainland and “assisting [the police] with an investigation.” In a January 18, 2016 communication, mainland authorities reported to their Hong Kong counterparts that Lee was “in the mainland,” but provided no information about his whereabouts, well-being, or access to lawyers or representatives of the British government.

Following Lee's disappearance, Hong Kong authorities expressed “serious concern” about the case, and stated that mainland authorities' carrying out of law enforcement activities in Hong Kong was “unacceptable and unconstitutional.” Article 4 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong's functional constitution, stipulates that “only legal enforcement agencies in Hong Kong have the legal authority” to enforce law in Hong Kong.

Thailand has forcibly returned to China those with a well-founded fear of ill-treatment, such as the group of 109 Turkic asylum seekers sent back in July 2015, and two mainland democracy activists, Dong Guangping and Jiang Yefei, between November 14-15, 2015, even though they had been granted refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and offered expedited resettlement with their families to Canada. Most recently, Li Xin, a former correspondent at Southern Metropolis Weekly, a prominent mainland Chinese newspaper, went missing near the Laos-Thailand border in mid-January while seeking to renew his visa for Thailand. In early February, Li's wife, in Henan province, received a call from him, stating that he was back in China and assisting police with an investigation. It is unclear how he returned to China from Thailand. Li's wife believes that he had been abducted and held against his will.

Canada, Germany, the European Parliament, the European Union, Japan, Sweden, and the United States, among others, have strongly condemned the abductions and arbitrary detentions of the booksellers. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said during a visit to Beijing he had “urgently enquired” after Lee Bo.

Human Rights Watch called on these governments to raise these cases in upcoming high-level interactions, such as the February 26-27, 2016 meeting of G20 Finance Ministers in Shanghai, with Chinese counterparts until the five are released, and to immediately review the nature and scope of cooperation with Chinese law enforcement counterparts. US President Barack Obama should also publicly challenge Thai Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha concerning his government's role in the suspected abductions of Gui Minhai, Li Xin, and others at the upcoming US-ASEAN summit at Sunnylands, California on February 15-16.

“Foreign governments have criticized China's abductions and detentions of the Hong Kong booksellers, but they are going to have to turn up the heat until the five are released and returned home,” Richardson said. “Deterring Beijing's unprecedented new impulse to snatch people outside its borders requires an unequivocal response before this outrageous practice becomes a norm.”

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