China’s aggressive efforts to bring back fugitives grow more brazen

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When Liu Lingshuang, a Chinese national living on the Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus, went to renew the passports of her two children, the embassy rejected her request because their father was a wanted man in China. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for the latest updates on Russia’s war in Ukraine. ArrowRight But if Liu could persuade Ma Chao to come to the embassy and admit to committing a crime, then the renewal might be possible, embassy staff told her. Its offer was recounted by a person familiar with the exchange, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the Chinese government.

The incident last year — the start of a campaign of threats to press the business executive to give himself up — illustrates what human rights groups warn are authorities’ pervasive and increasingly brazen intimidation tactics to compel fugitives hiding overseas to return to China.

As Beijing’s high-profile hunt for international fugitives escalates, activists and some lawmakers in Europe and North America are raising the alarm about its use of coercive tactics to repatriate people and calling for Western governments to be cautious with requests to send criminal suspects to China to face trial.

Among the reasons they cite for rejecting Beijing’s demands are its misuse of international law enforcement platforms like Interpol as a tool of transnational political repression and its failure to appropriately guarantee a fair trial for those who return.

Within the European Union, some fear that states like Cyprus, one of 10 members that have signed extradition treaties with Beijing, are at risk of being complicit in the international expansion of controversial Chinese policing practices that often ignore human rights safeguards.

Since 2014, China’s issuance of Interpol “red notices” — essentially, requests to police forces around the world to apprehend a suspect and send them to another jurisdiction — has increased dramatically from around 30 a year to more than 200 annually, according to figures published by Chinese media. The notices target not just allegedly corrupt officials and executives but also, according to reports, include political activists and ethnic Uyghurs or Tibetans who fled Chinese repression in their homelands.

At least 1,574 Uyghurs have been detained and repatriated from outside China since 1997, with 1,364 of those cases taking place since 2014, a new analysis by the Wilson Center detailed. The report noted that Chinese practices targeting Uyghurs include withholding passports, cyberattacks, intimidation, surveillance, pressure on families, spying through informants and abuse of Interpol and extradition treaties.

Under what China calls a counterterrorism program, at least a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been detained since 2017 in Xinjiang province and subject to political indoctrination, torture and psychological abuse, according to the State Department.

This month, human rights groups called for Saudi Arabia to halt the planned deportation of four Uyghurs, including a mother and her 13-year-old child, to China. After an outcry, the repatriation was delayed.

“These individuals remain at great risk,” said Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project. If deported, “there is zero doubt they will be detained indefinitely, and subject to brutality and torture.”

China’s Foreign Ministry consistently denies allegations of human rights abuses in its legal system. In response to queries from The Washington Post, it called any accusations of misconduct an attempt to smear normal intentional law enforcement cooperation that “runs totally counter to justice and the rule of law.” However, a 2018 report from the graft-busting China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection championed the use of “irregular methods” to repatriate those wanted abroad.

Those methods, as described in the since-deleted report, include kidnapping and entrapment where Chinese law enforcement might lure suspects onto the high seas, international airspace or into a country with an extradition treaty.

Even for apparently nonpolitical cases like Ma’s in Cyprus, activists contend that off-the-books techniques of harassment have become more common. They say the default assumption should be to reject Chinese extradition requests.

“This is not an isolated case, but rather the blueprint for an intricate part of China’s growing transnational repression,” the human rights organization Safeguard Defenders wrote in a report about the case.

Previously high-profile cases include that of Swedish book publisher Gui Minhai, who disappeared in Thailand in 2015 and then reappeared in custody in China, and that of former Chinese official Xu Jin, a New Jersey resident who was stalked and harassed by Chinese agents after they flew his elderly father to the United States in an effort to persuade him to return to China.

Some recent Chinese extradition efforts have failed. In 2019, the Swedish Supreme Court declined to extradite a man wanted on suspicion of embezzlement in China because he risked political persecution there.

The pressure campaign targeting Liu in Cyprus began shortly after her partner was detained by authorities there in February 2021 based on a red notice from China. Ma, who is in his 40s, was wanted in China on suspicion of fraudulent fundraising linked to the companies he ran. The government notice cited the Zhouxin Group, a conglomerate with subsidiaries that spanned agriculture, wealth management, property and peer-to-peer lending.

According to Liu’s account as told to Safeguard Defenders, which is registered in Spain but focuses on China, Liu continued to appear in court in support of Ma after the embassy refused to renew her children’s passports. But that changed in October, when she was approached in the courthouse parking lot by about eight men dressed in suits who had arrived on a minibus from the Chinese Embassy.

The group warned Liu against supporting Ma’s legal fight against deportation and set a timeline of three months for him to return to China. If that deadline was missed, they told her, family in China would be arrested. Her account was corroborated by an individual who witnessed the exchange. China’s Ministry of Public Security did not respond to requests for comment on the status of the investigation into Ma’s case.

Since the incident, Liu stopped attending the extradition hearings.

Such “coercion-by-proxy” is regularly deployed by Chinese law enforcement with threats often made against parents, sometimes over instant messaging or photographs taken by police officers, said Bradley Jardine, a global fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States and author of the new report on global Uyghur arrests and deportations.

“A lot of the time this is to convey a sense of power and authority over the family members and instill a sense of fear that China uses to deter activists from engaging in speaking with media or in public events,” he said.

In late January, as the three-month deadline set by Chinese authorities passed, Liu’s sister and brother-in-law, Liu Linghui and Zhang Shourong, were arrested in the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin on suspicion of illegal fundraising, according to images of official detention slips shared by Safeguard Defenders. Liu declined to be interviewed for this article out of fear of further Chinese government actions targeting her family.

China’s international dragnet to capture fugitives beyond its borders has expanded rapidly since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. Operation Sky Net, which targets officials who have fled the country after being accused of corruption, has snared more than 10,000 individuals since its launch in 2015.

Only 1 percent of those individuals were extradited through official channels. State media accounts said the rest were “persuaded” to give themselves up using the Central Commission’s “irregular methods” that could be used as a last resort.

By 2018, China was making headway in its efforts to normalize extradition from Europe. A fugitive facing corruption charges was repatriated from Sweden, despite the lack of a bilateral extradition treaty, and Beijing’s first official graft rendition from a European Union member country was made from Bulgaria.

But as China’s diplomatic antagonism with liberal democracies intensified, so has fear in Western capitals that governments may have rushed too quickly into law enforcement cooperation with Beijing. Political exiles who fled repression in Hong Kong or Xinjiang have raised the alarm that E.U. member states’ extradition treaties implicitly legitimize the internationalization of Chinese law enforcement.

The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), an international group of legislators in democratic nations working to change how such countries approach dealings with Beijing, issued “do not extradite” cards to critics of the Chinese state in Europe who considered themselves at risk of being targeted by rendition requests.

The imposition of the draconian national security law in Hong Kong in 2020, which criminalizes an array of vaguely worded activities, led to calls for extradition treaties to be suspended or revoked. In the last year, however, the initiatives to scrutinize the treaties have stalled, said Reinhard Bütikofer, co-chair of the European Green Party and of IPAC.

“The idea of differentiating between extradition efforts that may look obviously political and others that claim to prosecute financial crimes seems impractical and ill considered,” he said in an interview. China “doesn’t guarantee human rights to any of its citizens; we should not extradite individuals into such an authoritarian system.”

Lyric Li in Seoul contributed additional reporting.

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