Safeguard Defenders is a human rights NGO founded in late 2016 that undertakes and supports local field activities that contribute to the protection of basic rights, promote the rule of law and enhance the ability of local civil society and human rights defenders in some of the most hostile environments in Asia. 

At any given time, Safeguard Defenders is running about a dozen programs in target countries. From our small head office in Madrid, Spain we work with local partners, who include teachers, lawyers, local independent media organizations and civil society organizations engaged in the promotion and protection of human rights and the rule of law. 

Our Madrid office handles the day-to-day management and administration, while our network of staff and partners are located across Asia.

For safety reasons, most staff and partners are kept anonymous, a testament to the severity of the human rights situation in target countries

Safeguard Defenders is a registered foundation in the European Union (Spain), under the name Fundacion Safeguard Defenders (G88426192).


our story

The story behind Safeguard Defenders goes back to 2009, the year when a small NGO called China Action was founded in Beijing by human rights activists Peter Dahlin from Sweden and Michael Caster from the U.S. and a small group of Chinese rights lawyers and other human rights defenders (HRD).

Its mission was to support China’s fledging lawyer community. It ran trainings and capacity building projects as well as provided direct support for legal interventions and other assistance to HRDs at risk.

It also established a string of legal aid centres across China, working with, and specializing in supporting, China’s frontline legal defenders, also called ‘barefoot’ or ‘citizen’ lawyers. These stations offered pro-bono legal aid in China’s smaller cities and to local communities. Cases often concerned the rampant abuse and violation of laws by local police and government.

China Action was shuttered in 2016 after Chinese authorities targeted it in a major crackdown and when many of its staff and partners were detained, disappeared or imprisoned, including Peter. 

In the six years before it was forced to close down, China Action worked quietly behind the scenes, expanding its support programs year by year. Despite its low profile, the organisation was periodically harassed by the Chinese authorities. China's Ministry of State Security pressured a young assistant to work as a 'mole'. Another young assistant was targeted as part of an attack on gender and LGBT activism. Meanwhile, both police and state security agents would regularly force trainings to close down, detaining and harassing staff and, more frequently, partners. They would also track, monitor and surveil training activities held in nearby countries. Despite such setbacks, the reach and scope of China Action's work continued to grow.

By the time China Action was forced to close, it had conducted 150 direct interventions to help HRDs, trained some 800 lawyers and ‘barefoot’ lawyers at over 100 training sessions, and provided legal aid and filed some 1,000 lawsuits on the behalf of victims of illegal government actions.

The foundation for Safeguard Defenders was laid in 2016, and was publicly launched in 2017. The organisation has inherited the mission of China Action, but with an expanded scope to support the survival and effectiveness of civil society and HRDs in some of Asia's most hostile environments, including China. 


who we are

Safeguard Defenders focuses almost exclusively on field operations and must therefore deal with the associated security implications. It has four basic divisions, details of which are not made public because of safety considerations. This is especially important for field staff, who make up the majority of our workforce and partners.

The core central staff handle the majority of the administration and management and are primarily located in Madrid. All field staff are based locally, alongside both long- and short-term partners and partnering civil society organizations. Finally, contractors and consultants complement Safeguard Defenders staff as required. 

All staff and partners, with the exception of some of the core central staff, are nationals of the target country in which they operate. For safety reasons, we only release the names of a small number of our central staff. 


peter dahlin

@Peterinexile, Swedish, was a co-founder and the Director of ‘China Action’, based out of Beijing, from 2009 to 2016. Prior to moving to China in 2007, Peter worked for the Swedish government. Peter holds an M.A. in Political Science from Umeå University. Peter is the editor of 'Trial By Media' and a contributor to 'The People’s Republic of the Disappeared', and is a contributor to, among others, The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Washington Post.


zhang zhiming

Zhang Zhiming, Chinese, is a long-time rights defender and field worker in China, having handled field organizing and logistics for two Chinese NGOs over many years, before going into exile to Australia in 2015. Zhang specializes in planning and carrying out safe field activities, risk management and reduction, as well as assisting in training related to small NGO/CSO capacity, practical security solutions, and how to incorporate risk assessment as daily analysis in field operations. 


wang xiao

Wang Xiao, Chinese, is a former state news media worker, journalist, and researcher. Wang specializes in investigative journalism, technical support and IT-security. Before joining Safeguard Defenders she ran a number of training programs for independent media in China, both concerning IT-security - with focus on protecting sources and data - and on how investigative journalism can be conducted and published through state media channels. Wang now coordinates  IT- and media support work.

Communications officer

benjamin ismaïl

Benjamin Ismaïl, French, is a free speech advocate, activist and Safeguard Defenders principal communications Officer. An expert on press freedom, Benjamin headed the its Asia-Pacific desk for Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2011-2017. Benjamin also conducts cybersecurity trainings for journalists and dissidents from authoritarian regimes, as well as capacity building projects for independent media. He is also the founder of Watchdogs Unleashed.


dinah gardner

Dinah Gardner, British, is a researcher with Safeguard Defenders. She holds two master’s degrees, the most recent in Asia Pacific studies from Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, where she specialized in human rights and researched China’s forced TV confessions. She spent more than a decade working as a freelance journalist in China; her articles have appeared in media including Al Jazeera and South China Morning Post.

Senior Advisor

michael caster

@michaelcaster, American, was a co-founder of ‘China Action’. He holds an M.A. in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University and an M.A. in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from the University of Utrecht. Michael is the editor of ‘The People’s Republic of the Disappeared’ and has also contributed to reports commissioned by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Minority Rights Group, and others.


Being a small and flexible organization is what gives Safeguard Defenders its strength. We are able to tailor our projects and support to real needs on the ground and launch support actions the moment they arise. Because we allocate almost all our resources to this work, we are very dependent on grant support from our generous supporters and have little additional time for other tasks.

That is why your support could be invaluable, whether it is your expertise, your time, or even a small donation. We regularly seek help from volunteers to expand our ability to conduct research. If you think your background and knowledge could help, then we would be delighted to hear from you. For current job vacancies and volunteer positions, check Safeguard Defenders' twitter feed or page.

Every small donation has a real impact. This is especially true for the kind of work helping those on the ground through our field activities. If you would like to donate you can contact us at, make a direct bank deposit, or donate directly using PayPal below. 



We also encourage anyone with an interest in our work to show their support with the purchase of one of our books. These can be found under publications, and are on sale on Amazon worldwide. Titles include the internationally-acclaimed The People’s Republic of the Disappeared, the book that exposed China’s use of disappearances since Xi Jinping came to power, and Trial By Media, a ground-breaking publication that investigated the role of Chinese State media, CCTV, in collaborating with the police to coerce victims into confessing before they had been tried in a court of law, many sometimes even before arrest or even granted access to a lawyer.

All non-donation income for Safeguard Defenders consists of grants retained through competition in open calls, from international institutions, foundations and governments' development assistance programs.