Lawyers say China is using Interpol to seek dissident's return

Attorneys are calling on the United States to release a Chinese democracy advocate from immigration custody. They are concerned he could be deported to his homeland to face false charges, after China put a "red notice" on him via the Lyon-based Interpol organisation.

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the 86th Interpol General Assembly at Beijing National Convention Center in Beijing, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017.
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the 86th Interpol General Assembly at Beijing National Convention Center in Beijing, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017. AP - Lintao Zhang

Human rights advocates say this is one of a handful of cases in which China has used the “red notice” system of the International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol) to try to force the return of fugitives from the United States.

Under this system, a member country of the international police consortium can ask other countries to arrest and return fugitives living abroad. It’s not clear how often, if ever, this tactic has resulted in the US turning over detainees to Chinese authorities.

A search on the Interpol website shows that there are currently 28 Chinese nationals wanted by China under an Interpol "red notice."

Targeting dissidents

The man in question was arrested in June and is being held in a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center. The Associated Press is withholding the man’s name because a sibling still living in China has reported being threatened by government agents with criminal charges unless his brother returns to the country.

ICE says it arrested the man for overstaying his visa and has not commented on whether the Chinese charges led to his detention. But the man's attorneys say China is exploiting the immigration system to bypass American efforts to fight Beijing's targeting of dissidents. The man and his immediate family are seeking asylum in the US.

A red notice issued in January accuses the man of being the ringleader of a conspiracy to make illegal profits through a mining business and recruit former prisoners to attack a supposed enemy. The man's advocates say other documents from China's legal system show he is being framed for crimes that have already been linked to others. 


“There are countries that abuse the Interpol red notice system, especially including China," said John Sandweg, one of the man's attorneys.

Sandweg, a former acting director of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, said the agency risked being manipulated by red notices and becoming "a tool to continue the persecution of law abiding activists and dissidents.”

According to his attorneys, the man served as a village chief when Chinese authorities sought to seize a friend's home for a planned industrial park. The man says he allowed villagers to protest peacefully and helped the friend protest the central government directly. 

China's embassy in Washington and Interpol did not respond to requests for comment.

“What ICE doesn’t understand well is that (an) Interpol Red Notice from China is highly political and not a reliable indicator for real criminal activities,” said Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at the advocacy group Human Rights Watch

China aggressively pursues the repatriation of people it considers opponents of Communist Party leadership, including people living in the United States in what American authorities have alleged are extralegal campaigns to harass and stalk targets. 

A federal grand jury this month indicted nine people on allegations they served as agents in “Operation Fox Hunt,” which the Chinese government has characterized as an effort to track down corrupt officials and criminals abroad. The Justice Department called Operation Fox Hunt “extralegal” and alleges the indicted people “conducted surveillance of and engaged in a campaign to harass, stalk and coerce” people wanted by Beijing to return to China.

Interpol president demoted

Interpol was criticized in 2016 after a top Chinese official, Meng Hongwei, was elected as its president, with some warning that China would be newly assertive.

His four-year term was cut short when he vanished in 2018 during a visit to China from France, where he and his family had moved, when he was assigned to work at the organisation's headquarters in Lyon.

Meng eventually resurfaced to plead guilty to fraud charges and was sentenced to 13 years in prison. His wife, who received asylum in France along with their children, has said she believes Meng was a victim of political persecution.

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