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Parliamentary hearing on Sweden's actions to protect Gui Minhai and Dawit Isaak

Yesterday, December 8, a hearing at the Swedish parliament was held on the subject of imprisoned Swedish author, bookseller, and publisher Gui Minhai (China), journalist Dawit Isaak (Eritrea), and Ahmadreza Djalali (Iran), with a focus on how the Swedish government and the foreign ministry can and should act to assist them more effectively than has been the case so far. The hearing takes place as a commission established by parliament - against the will of the government - to evaluate the actions of the government concerning the cases of Gui Minhai and Dawit Isaak, is preparing to release its report this coming March (2022). The same commission was in the news recently as the government asked for additional secrecy powers to limit what the commission can release to the public. 

Along with Irwin Cotler, former Minister of Justice in Canada, William Browder, the creator of the movement for Magnitsky legislation, and a team of journalists, activists, and relatives of Dawit Isaak, Safeguard Defenders' Director Peter Dahlin spoke. In his first major remark on the work of the foreign ministry (Utrikesdepartementet) concerning the case of Gui Minhai, he issued a broadside, identifying missed opportunities, unwillingness to act, ignorance and lack of knowledge, and worse, a pervasive culture of insulation and willingness to seek nor receive help. 

The speech, in Swedish, is republished here in English translation.

Read Safeguard Defenders' investigation into Gui Minhai's last days in Thailand, and his abduction back to China.

**

By December 2015 someone at the Swedish Embassy had contacted me asking for assistance in tracking down reliable information about the fate and status of Gui Minhai. By Christmas, the predecessor organization to Safeguard Defenders provided a report. It was by then already clear what had happened. By the afternoon of January 3, 2016, I sent an updated version to the Embassy. A few hours later, two dozen State Security agents raided my home, and took me away.

I was placed into RSDL, China’s then-new system for keeping people, at a secret location, incommunicado, for up to six month. It was the same system used on co-workers of Gui, detained either in China or in the case of British citizen Lee Bo, kidnapped in Hong Kong. It is likely the same system used on Gui.

The system has recently been used in a spate of high profile ‘hostage diplomacy’ cases, with two Canadians and two Australians the most high profile targets. The system, at that time almost entirely unknown, including for diplomats in Beijing, has since been exposed in greater detail, almost entirely due to the work of Safeguard Defenders.

Like Gui, I was also marshaled out in a scripted confession, aimed almost entirely at countering foreign criticism. Much like what is happening with tennis star Peng Shuai right now.

**

Before launching into criticism of the Swedish foreign ministry’s handling of the case of Gui, and in extension the case of Dawit, especially when compared with the behavior of its Australian, British and Canadian counterparts, one should take note that when Gui was taken that October back in 2015, there was far less understanding of China’s assertiveness. That knowledge certainly existed, and all the things we see now on a regular basis were already being employed, but it was nonetheless not known, or accepted, by foreign ministries across the west, not only in Sweden.

Much was made in the perceived difference in how the UD initially responded to two similar cases of myself and Gui, but whether that holds any truth is not really known outside of UD itself. It bears to remember that I, unlike many other targets of Chinese detention, or disappearance, of foreign citizens, had a bonus that could explain the difference; most allied nations diplomatic corps knew of me, many in person, and of my specific role as running a human rights NGO. With that, we saw, and also learned more about afterward, about extensive work by, for example, Germany, on my behalf, and strong statements from the EU itself, as well as engagement from the U.S., UK, and Canada, to mention a few. Gui did not have that advantage. He could only rely on Sweden’s UD. And UD let him down.

**

Sweden’s minimal engagement for Gui was perhaps understandable, due to a complete lack of knowledge and experience in how to deal with China when he was first taken 2015/2016. The fact that he was, provably, kidnapped in a third country, was not made a focal point, which was the first missed opportunity to gain leverage. It's rather sad that British journalists, as well as friends of Gui, and people that did not even know him – all got access to his apartment long before Sweden, who actually maintains a police office in Thailand, did. Or questioned the staff at his condo.

Exactly how it managed to muck it up so bad is still one point no one has been able to answer. It took three months after he disappeared until Swedish police visited his apartment. They did so only after Gui had been paraded on TV, despite promising two months earlier that they would.  Why they didn’t, nobody knows.

They did, belatedly, get confirmation that Gui did not leave Thailand through regular channels, but could have gotten such far earlier.  Regardless, they did not use this point as leverage, nor to internationalize the issue of kidnapping people from third countries, which could have gotten significant support from across the world.

Sweden instead went ahead and tried to deal with this as a consular issue. This was doomed to fail from the start, but the culture within foreign ministries is strong, stronger than in most departments, and it is seemingly even stronger in the Swedish one. Things simply had to be done “the way it's always done”, failing to realize that that way, designed for dealing with countries operating entirely differently, would always fail with China.

**

Finding points of leverage would be the only game in town if the purpose was to get concessions regarding the case of Gui. As in many cases, and especially with China, it was not necessarily using the leverage that matters but making it clear that leverage existed, and that using it was a possibility. Sweden, instead, went out of its way to make sure – in public – that it had no leverage and even if it did, had no interest in using it.

If this case was developing right now, one point of leverage would naturally be a diplomatic/political boycott of the Olympics, but the idea has not even surfaced as an idea to be discussed. Upgrading economic ties with Taiwan, as an idea, would be another. Blocking the Chinese takeover of Swedish semiconductor companies, yet another. It could also tie a harder push for an EU investment screening process to China’s blatant violation of treaties and laws in this case. The list of possible points of leverage is a long one, and unlike the UK, Canada, and Australia, which – though larger countries – Sweden does not stand alone, but alongside the EU – if it would choose to use the EU. It has, consistently, chosen to not utilize the EU.

**

Forgiveness for amateurish behavior might have been possible during Gui’s initial disappearance and detention, but unforgivable when it happened again, in early 2018. Yet despite the abject failures, and Sweden by now holding proof of Gui’s kidnapping in a third country, and of torture in detention, UD choose to continue down the same path. The Foreign Minister even publically went out and said, in effect, “there is nothing we can do”. When the EU’s external relations department issued a relatively strong statement about his detention and arrest on that train, UD itself apparently went through the roof in anger, wanting the EU as far away as possible.

In fact, the US congressional hearing with his daughter Angela, the dedicated statement on Gui from the EU parliament, and the EEAS involvement have all been done without any support – sometimes resistance - from UD. As we can inform UD – if they ever asked – every person held in China that have been interviewed after detention or imprisonment has said the same thing; media and diplomatic attention improve their treatment inside. If they wanted to help, at least after his second time being taken, they knew full well that their strategy was a dead end, but refused to even consider options.

Comparing UD’s behavior after Gui’s second detention, with its focus on keeping silent, engaging in what even they must know if meaningless engagement (Chinese police at times even stopped picking up the phone for them!) with that of Canada, provides a badly looking contrast. Canada, gathering up to 60 nations in an attempt to internationalizing the kidnapping of two Canadians, engaged various other countries not just in statements, but asking them to raise the cases when they engaged with China, and made it a cornerstone in Canadian policy overall, and made all this very clear to China. They may not have taken all the steps they should have, but they at least admitted publically that they were considering a variety of options, as a way to gain leverage, which would be key to securing concessions.

Personally, I’ve been approached by the Canadian foreign ministry, not to mention a variety of MPs and Senators, and the local embassy in Beijing, about their citizens being taken in China, far more than I was ever approached by our own UD about Gui. In fact, despite Gui being the first Swede likely put into RSDL, the system for secret detention, and me being only the second, I have, many years later, not even been asked for a debriefing. I did try to push for one, but the promised debriefing never happened, as the UD staff dropped the ball and disappeared.

The local staff in Beijing were already aware that we, and our network of lawyers, had engaged with this system far beyond any other group, and that they knew nothing about it. Likewise, the high profile reporting and campaigning on forced TV confessions, which Gui has been put through three times, is another area Safeguard Defenders is known as the premier authority on, anywhere in the world. Yet, UD has not even once reached out, either for discussions or information. The list of foreign ministries that has reached out is a long one, but the Swedish one is not among them, despite how this clearly related to Gui.

Having spent a considerable amount of time engaging with the diplomatic corps in Beijing, I can only echo what many of them, representatives from a variety of European countries, have told me, in exasperation; “what are they doing?”.

Why it is that American, Canadian, British, Australian, etc. foreign ministry staff, party political groups, and MPs and Senators reach out to us for information, as well as for input on possible actions and counteractions – while Sweden’s UD does not, is hard to explain, but it is a fact. This fact should not be underestimated in importance, nor in the consequences, such insulation will have for Sweden’s ability to deal with China or protect its citizens.

Sweden’s UD, even more so than other larger countries’ foreign ministries, simply do not have the expertise needed to know how to effectively engage with China, yet refuses to seek neither information nor discussions nor input into how to handle such issues.

If this does not change, Gui and Isaak won’t be the only victims here, and Sweden will continue to be sitting dock for China when and if it chooses to engage in this form of diplomacy again.

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