BEIJING – Chinese state television has aired a confession made in detention by a Swedish co-founder of a human rights group, who said he had trained and funded unlicensed lawyers in China to take on cases against the government “in clear violation of the law.”
In a 10-minute segment aired late Tuesday and early Wednesday, state broadcaster CCTV detailed how Peter Dahlin established an activist organization in Hong Kong with the help of employees from the human rights-focused Fengrui Law Firm in Beijing, whose lawyers have been recently charged with subverting state power.
Dahlin’s group has called the confession “apparently forced” and rejected accusations that it manufactured or escalated conflicts inside China.
In the past year, China’s government under President Xi Jinping has aggressively cracked down on increasingly assertive legal rights groups, framing their advocacy as a destabilizing force to state security. Authorities formally charged four well-known Fengrui lawyers last week, six months after hundreds of lawyers nationwide were rounded up and accused of stirring up hostility toward the government and manufacturing cases to enrich themselves.
Dahlin was arrested Jan. 3 on his way to Beijing’s international airport, becoming the first foreign worker to be entangled in the crackdown, which has drawn widespread condemnation from foreign governments and overseas human rights groups, which have urged Beijing to abide by its promise to rule by law.
Dahlin’s organization in Hong Kong, which was not legally permitted to operate in mainland China, accepted foreign funding and paid lawyers and petitioners within China, who in turn provided negative information that tarnished the country’s image, according to the state media reports.
“Certain people that we have supported in one time or another have gone on to do acts in clear violation of the law,” Dahlin said in his televised confession, while apologizing for hurting “the Chinese government and Chinese people.”
He also said he had “no complaints to make” and that he had been treated fairly while in detention and provided medication he needed.
The official Xinhua News Agency cited witnesses as saying Dahlin had been planted by “Western anti-China forces” to gather negative information about China and fan opposition to the ruling Communist Party.
The CCTV segment about Dahlin came one day after the Chinese government released a taped confession by another detained Swede, Gui Minhai, a Hong Kong-based publisher of sensitive books banned on the mainland who disappeared in October.
Swedish Embassy spokesman Sebastian Magnusson said the embassy had no comment on the CCTV report but said Swedish representatives had met with Dahlin and that he was “OK considering the circumstances.”
Chinese authorities since 2013 have frequently used televised confessions of dissidents and activists on state TV ahead of their trials, swaying public opinion against them, although legal experts say the tactic violates Chinese law. The confessions are filmed by the state broadcaster CCTV and appear to be voluntary, though they often are believed to be coerced by police.
At least 18 such confessions have been made by high-profile activists, bloggers and journalist.
Whistle-blowing journalist Liu Hu, accused of spreading falsehoods and detained in 2013, said in an interview he was cajoled for months to give such a confession, but that he refused. Liu, who had reported on corruption in his home city of Chongqing, eventually was released in 2014 and later cleared of charges.
Dahlin’s group says it has been working since 2009 to help advance the rule of law by organizing training programs by lawyers for rights defenders focusing on land rights and administrative law. It also releases practical guides on the Chinese legal system.
China has a huge number of petitioners who have unresolved complaints against local governments, often involving land seizures.
Dahlin’s group says it “has only ever advocated nonviolent, informed reliance on Chinese law,” and that Dahlin was “arbitrarily detained on spurious accusations.”
Endangering state security is a category in China’s criminal law that includes a number of offenses, including subversion of state power, separatism and espionage. The maximum sentence for some is the death penalty, although it also allows for foreigners to be deported.