The Chinese government should immediately free Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai, who disappeared from Thailand a year ago and reappeared in custody in China, Human Rights Watch said. The Chinese government has provided little information about the enforced disappearances and detentions of Gui and four other bookseller colleagues in Thailand, Hong Kong, and China.
“A full year has gone by, yet all that’s clear is that Chinese authorities have grossly violated the rights of the five booksellers both within and outside China’s borders,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “China’s willingness to snatch people in Thailand and Hong Kong with the apparent involvement of their governments adds to the concerns.”
Gui Minhai, who co-owns the Hong Kong Mighty Current publishing house, which issues books about mainland political intrigues, went missing from Pattaya, Thailand, on October 17, 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 was being investigated for other unspecified “criminal activities,” and that others have been investigated in connection with him. Swedish diplomats have been allowed two brief visits with Gui. Neither his family nor the Swedish government has been informed of any formal charges against him, nor the formal place of his detention, rendering him forcibly disappeared.
Enforced disappearances are defined under international law as the arrest or detention of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts. Enforced disappearances violate a range of fundamental human rights protected under international law, including prohibitions against arbitrary arrest and detention; torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; and extrajudicial execution. Disappearances are a continuing offense that cause anguish and suffering for the victim’s family members.
Following Gui’s abduction in Thailand, four other staff members of the Causeway Bay Bookstore, owned by Mighty Current, also went missing between October and December 2015. One, British national Lee Po, disappeared from Hong Kong. Although his travel documents remained in Hong Kong, Lee later resurfaced in China, saying that he had gone there voluntarily “using his own methods” in order to “cooperate in a judicial investigation.” Three other booksellers and Hong Kong residents – Lui Por, Cheung Chi Ping, and Lam Wing Kee – were detained in the mainland. These booksellers have since been released; only Gui remains detained in China.
On June 16, 2016, one of the booksellers, Lam Wing Kee, held a news conference in Hong Kong revealing details about his detention in China. He said the authorities interrogated him about the publisher’s operations, including information about the books’ authors and readers, and forced him to read from a scripted “confession.”
In general, the circumstances surrounding the abductions and detentions of Gui Minhai and Lee Po remain unclear. The Thai government said, in January 2016, that it had no record of Gui leaving the territory. Although Hong Kong government officials have met with mainland Chinese officials about the booksellers’ case, neither has publicly explained whether Lee was abducted from Hong Kong. Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung had said that it would be “unacceptable for mainland law enforcement to operate in Hong Kong” because it “violates the Basic Law,” the territory’s functional constitution. Yet Leung has never clarified whether any mainland security agents operate in Hong Kong.
The Causeway Bay booksellers were not the first to be targeted by mainland authorities for their sale of politically opinionated books in Hong Kong, Human Rights Watch said. In May 2014, Yao Wentian, 75, chief editor of Morning Bell Press, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “smuggling” in Shenzhen. In July 2016, Wang Jianmin, a US citizen and editor of magazines Multiple Face and New-Way Monthly, was sentenced to five years in prison in Shenzhen for “operating an illegal business,” together with his associate Guo Zhongxiao.
A dozen governments have publicly condemned the Chinese government for the booksellers’ case, including a 12-country joint statement delivered at the Human Rights Council in March, as well as a European Parliament resolution adopted in February.
“Although the booksellers’ case has generated considerable condemnation from foreign governments, none has imposed meaningful consequences on Beijing for its arbitrary arrests of foreign citizens,” Richardson said. “This failure to do so may only embolden the Chinese government.”