The televised "confession" — very likely made under duress — comes just days after one of the five missing booksellers, Gui Minhai, was also put before the cameras. On Sunday night, China's state broadcaster, CCTV aired footage of Gui, who had been missing for months, describing how he made the "choice" to leave Thailand and return to China to face charges in a 2003 drunk driving case.
Both men were initially held incommunicado, and both "confessions" came before any sort of trial, raising questions about China's oft-stated commitment to the rule of law. Unless you are pressured or coerced, why "confess" on television before your trial?
In Gui's case, there are questions about how he got from his home in Thailand to a Chinese television studio — did Thai authorities know he was on the move? And, given that his whereabouts are unknown, was he given access to a lawyer before he made his carefully edited "confession"?
There are also concerns about Dahlin's treatment. After disappearing on Jan. 3 or Jan. 4, he was denied contact with Swedish consular officials until Jan. 16. His girlfriend, a Chinese national named Pan Jinling, is also missing. Colleague Michael Caster called it an "apparent forced confession."
The irony in Dahlin's case is that his work focused on the rule of law. After first coming to China as a student, he returned in 2007 and worked with a now-defunct non-profit before co-founding Chinese Urgent Action Working Group (China Action) to train and support lawyers. Caster told the Washington Post Dahlin wanted to "help Chinese civil society participate effectively in the development of the rule of law."
Based on what Dahlin told the cameras, it was that work that caught the attention of Chinese authorities. Since July 2010, they have targeted more than 100 civil and human rights lawyers and legal advocates, detaining dozens and taking aim at family members, including one 16-year-old boy. Several now face charges of "subversion of state power" or "inciting subversion of state power."
A state media report headlined "Police Smashes Organization Jeopardizing National Security" said Dahlin's work with lawyers involved sponsoring "activities jeopardizing China's national security." It accused him of trying to "gather, fabricate, and distort information about China, providing a so-called "China's human rights report" to overseas organizations."
The high-profile case may presage the passage of a controversial new law governing non-governmental organizations in China. Beijing says the law is necessary for national security and is modeled on similar laws in other countries. Rights groups and non-governmental organizations worry that the draft law may be used to deepen the crackdown on dissent.
A report in Xinhua, China's official newswire, accused the Swede of operating an "illegal" organization and pocketing money sent to the organization by overseas groups.
Caster called the charges "baseless," and urged the government to drop all charges.
Liu Liu reported from Beijing.