American Daja Meston and his Australian partner Gabriel Lafitte spent three days visiting nomadic camel herders, speaking with a Tibetan monk, interviewing a family planning official, and taking snapshots of a prison labor camp before Lafitte heard a soft knock on their hotel room door.
It was 7:15 a.m. on Aug. 15, and Lafitte, a grasslands expert, was meditating. Meston and Tsering Dorje, an ethnic Tibetan whom the men had hired as a Chinese language interpreter, were still sleeping. When Lafitte opened the door, he said, a dozen security agents poured into the small room in remote Dulan county.
So ended Meston and Lafitte's independent fact-finding mission to the proposed site of a controversial World Bank resettlement program.
Lafitte was released Saturday after quickly confessing to a host of Chinese charges, including "illegal interviewing." In an interview from his home in Melbourne, Australia, Lafitte said he expects at least 12 people they met to be interrogated and perhaps prosecuted.
Meston remains detained in a hospital in Xining, the capital of northwestern China's Qinghai province. He fell from a third-story window under uncertain circumstances and broke his back.
His wife, Phuntsok Meston, is flying to China today. U.S. and Chinese officials are discussing a plan to evacuate Meston to better medical facilities, but no date has been set, said a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman in Beijing.
Tsering Dorje is being held incommunicado.
Lafitte said the trip had been "perhaps naive and foolish," but he accused Chinese security agents of engaging in "extreme mental cruelty" once the three were in custody. He said he was not beaten.
Meston and Lafitte noticed they were under surveillance by security agents when they arrived in Dulan county, Lafitte said.
But they decided to forge ahead because a senior Chinese official at the World Bank had said in June that Chinese authorities "welcomed" international scrutiny of the area.
They traveled to a proposed dam site and took pictures of the Xiangride prison labor camp, which they stumbled across along the way, Lafitte said.
He has criticized the proposed project because he believes it will harm the environment and dilute the area's Tibetan population. Meston wanted to "see for himself," Phuntsok Meston said.
When Lafitte and Meston were detained, security agents demanded to know their "real" purpose for coming to China, Lafitte said.
Agents presented page after page of charges, often written in Chinese, and demanded that Meston and Lafitte apply their thumbprint in red wax to seal their confessions hundreds of times. Lafitte readily obliged.
But Lafitte said Meston was terrified, especially since he feared punishment for an unauthorized trip to Tibet with Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) in 1997. "I could hear him sounding increasingly desperate, increasingly worried, increasingly panicky, confused and disoriented, saying, 'I can't sign that,' or 'I have to think about that,' " Lafitte said. Later, "He just looked to me like an animal caught in a hunter's spotlight in the middle of the night."
The men were moved to separate floors in the Yushu County Hostel in Xining. Lafitte was told they were in the hands of the Ministry of State Security, China's secret police, he said.
The men assigned to monitor Lafitte told him at least three times that he was lucky he was Australian, and not American, because the United States had bombed China's embassy in Belgrade.
"America is always trying to hold us back, trying to make us weak," he recalled one saying.
Lafitte said he assumes that Meston jumped through the window, not to try to flee, as the Chinese government has asserted, but because of the unbearable psychological pressure.
"They are not so crude . . . to deliberately throw a Westerner from a powerful Western country out a window," Lafitte said. "I can imagine [they] just drove him over the edge."