China 'deported' Swedish NGO worker

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Beijing (AFP)

China has deported a Swedish human rights activist detained earlier this month for allegedly posing a threat to national security, the government said Tuesday.

Peter Dahlin, of the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, disappeared on January 4 as he prepared to board a flight to Thailand and appears to have been caught up in a crackdown on human rights lawyers.

Dahlin's group has said it offered training to lawyers who have tried to use the tightly controlled judiciary to redress apparent government abuses.

State broadcaster CCTV last week aired footage of a dazed and harried-looking Dahlin apologising to China for his alleged actions, which officials said had "threatened state security".

"We have deported him," Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokeswoman, told a regular press briefing on Tuesday.

Michael Caster, a US-based spokesman for Dahlin's group, said on Twitter that the Swede had been "expelled from China".

Dahlin's Chinese girlfriend, who had also been held, "is no longer in detention but, contrary to some assertions, has not left the country," he added.

The Swede's detention came as China considers a new law to control the activities of foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which has raised widespread concern among overseas groups.

The ruling Communist Party has in recent months stepped up its scrutiny of NGOs, while state media has warned of "hostile foreign forces" said to be using them to foment revolution.

Authorities also launched a sweeping crackdown on human rights attorneys in July, detaining more than 130 legal staff across the country. This month at least 10 were formally arrested on charges related to "state subversion" after being held in secret for six months.

- 'Intimidation and fear' -

Observers said Dahlin's case was intended to send a warning to NGOs.

"I can see why the PRC released him now," Jerome Cohen, a law professor at New York University, wrote in a blog post, using shorthand for the country's official name, the People's Republic of China.

"The authorities made their point, spreading intimidation and fear throughout both the domestic and foreign legal and NGO worlds."

Rights groups echoed these sentiments, with Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International's East Asia director, writing on Twitter: "China has sent the clearest signal yet that it intends to cut domestic NGOs from foreign funding."

Another Swedish national, Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai, disappeared from Thailand late last year before reappearing on Chinese national television in police custody.

Gui, who was born in China, confessed to a drink-driving offence on the mainland dating back years and said he did not want Stockholm to interfere with his case.

He was rumoured to be among those preparing a tell-all book about the love life of President Xi Jinping.

Beijing only rarely accuses foreigners of endangering state security, a crime which can involve a heavy sentence.

But, as Beijing has tightened social controls in recent years, it has sought to blame "foreign forces" for domestic woes, ranging from undermining Chinese values to a recent explosion in labour protests.

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, who had protested to China about the detention of the two Swedish nationals, which she called "unacceptable", welcomed Dahlin's release.

"This is the result of close contacts between the Swedish foreign ministry and Chinese representatives," she said in a statement on Monday.