Swedish Activist Tells All About His 23-Day Stay in a Chinese Secret Prison

A prominent activist combatting human rights violations in China revealed the truth about his 23-day detention in a secret Chinese prison in an exclusive interview with the The New York Times Saturday.

Peter Dahlin, a Swedish activist and co-founder of the nongovernmental organization Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, told of his stay in what is known in China as a ‘black jail’, detailing the immense pressures and agonizing stress the Chinese police placed on him during those 23 long days and nights.

Mr. Dahlin had been arrested on January 3 by China’s Ministry of State Security – the nation’s infamous spy and counter-espionage agency – being targeted for his NGO work.

Mr. Dahlin and a Chinese lawyer, Wang Quanzhang, launched the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group in 2009 to “promote the development of an independent judiciary in China” by using Chinese laws to empower citizens. Employing approximately 20 people (all of whom were local Chinese with the exception of Mr. Dahlin and an American), the organization held meetings for lawyers and other activists, offered crisis legal aid, and specialized in explaining China’s freedom-of-information statutes.

According to state-run Xinhua news, Mr. Dahlin was arrested because his organization “[jeopardized] China’s national security” and had workers “gather, fabricate, and distort information about China.”

Ever since Chinese President Xi Jinping took office in 2013, his intolerance for Party criticism and disobedience has been well-known; a phenomenon of activists, lawyers, journalists, and others going missing or unjustly detained has swept the nation.

NGOs have been a target of President Xi’s attack on democracy as well. An example of such: in April, in an effort to control his people and hinder western influence, President Xi and his Chinese Communist Party passed a law requiring all foreign nongovernmental groups in China – about 7,000 of them – to find an official Chinese sponsor and register with the authorities, who will now have the power to police them.

Mr. Dahlin’s organization of empowerment certainly posed a threat to President Xi’s vision of absolute allegiance by his people.

“His ordeal, which he described for the first time in an interview with The New York Times, offers an unusually clear view into the suspicion directed toward foreign nongovernmental organizations by the Chinese security apparatus and the lengths to which it goes to police such groups,” NYT reported.

Mr. Dahlin told the reporters that after the authorities seized his computers, phones, hard-drives, bank cards, receipts, cash from a safe, and Mr. Dahlin’s personal medications, they brought him to the unmarked detention center – the “black jail”.

The officers did not beat him, he said in the interview, but they did use stress-causing tactics of interrogation. In those first nights during his detention, they tried to deprive him of sleep. They kept powerful fluorescent lights glaring in his cell all night, he said. That is, until he told a woman running the center that this practice is deemed torture under international conventions.

Mr. Dahlin’s captors also held nightly interrogations lasting hours on end, in which they questioned him about possible connections to an organization supporting the pro-democracy protests that took Hong Kong by storm in 2014.

Mr. Dahlin denied having ties to the aforementioned organization, and the police eventually refocused their questioning to the workings of nongovernmental organizations.

After two weeks, Mr. Dahlin was forced to make a public confession to air on state television broadcast, China Central Television (CCTV). The entire confession/interview was scripted, he told The New York Times.

“I have been given good food, plenty of sleep, and I have suffered no mistreatments of any kind,” a section of his script read. “[I have] hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.”

Mr. Dahlin told the reporters he had agreed to cooperate in the hopes of speeding up the process of his deportation and to get his Chinese girlfriend, Pan Jinling, who had also been arrested, released.

Two days after the confession aired on CCTV, Mr. Dahlin was told he was granted a medical parole and would be deported back to Sweden.

On January 25, Mr. Dahlin was blind-folded and taken to the airport in a five-car envoy. He was given a one-way ticket to Stockholm, and barred from returning to China for ten years.