A member of a Hong Kong pro-democracy party said on Friday that he was abducted and beaten by mainland Chinese agents after saying he wanted to send a signed photo of footballer Lionel Messi to the wife of late Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo.
In a press conference in the former British colony on Friday, Democratic Party member Howard Lam displayed injuries to his legs he said were caused by metal staples, as well as red marks on his stomach.
Lam said he was abducted from a street in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong, which has operated a separate legal and immigration jurisdiction from mainland China since the 1997 handover to Beijing.
The abduction came after Lam said that he wanted to send a signed photo of footballer Lionel Messi to Liu Xia, the wife of late Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who has been held incommunicado by state security police since her husband's Nobel award was announced in October 2010. She has never been accused of any crime.
"It was past 4:00 p.m. although I didn't check the exact time ... and I was walking across an intersection, when two men who spoke Mandarin came up and started walking on either side of me, saying something like 'Mr. Lam,'" Lam told journalists.
"'Mr. Lam, we want to have a chat with you,' they said, and bundled me into a car ... whereupon I started yelling for help, then someone hit me on the temple, and gave me something to sniff and I lost consciousness," he said.
"I think I must have fainted from sniffing whatever it was."
Lam said when he came around, he was face to face with four or five abductors, who berated him for not loving China or loving Hong Kong, and warned him not to report the incident to the police.
"They asked me if I knew Liu Xia, and I said I didn't," he said. "Then they told me that this was an affair of the state, and that reporting it to the police would make no difference."
Lam said they beat him during the interrogation and stapled his legs in mockery of the Christian cross, displaying some of the criss-crossed staples for photographs.
"You're a Christian, so I'll give you a cross," he quoted his interrogator as saying. "They started stapling my legs, and it hurt, so I started screaming, and they covered up my mouth after that."
Lam went to a Hong Kong hospital for treatment on Friday afternoon and had reported the incident to police, the Democratic Party said.
Hong Kong police said they have launched an investigation, with plainclothes officers seen speaking with residents and shop owners in the area where Lam said he was taken.
"We won't tolerate the enforcement of the law by any law enforcement agencies from outside of Hong Kong," police commissioner Stephen Lo told reporters.
Sending a message
Lam's abduction comes after the cross-border detentions of five Hong Kong booksellers detained in 2015 by the Chinese authorities for selling "banned" political books to customers across the internal border in mainland China.
Lam Wing-kei, the only one of the five to speak openly about his experiences in detention and about threats to his personal safety since his release, said Howard Lam's ordeal seemed calculated to send a strong warning to other Hong Kong citizens who speak out about human rights abuses on the mainland.
"It effectively puts a question to the Hong Kong government about whether the police force have the capacity to protect Hong Kong people," Lam Wing-kei, who is now in Taiwan, told RFA on Friday. "It is terrifying. I am afraid to go back there myself now. We can't rule out the possibility that mainland agents were sent to Hong Kong."
"I could just mysteriously disappear into a truck one day on Causeway Bay, Mong Kok, Tsimshatsui," he said. "This incident makes it clear that there are no guarantees."
Two of Lam's colleagues at the now-shuttered Causeway Bay Books store, Lee Bo and Gui Minhai, are foreign passport-holders who went missing outside China's borders: Lee Bo from his workplace in Hong Kong and Gui Minhai from his holiday home in Pattaya, Thailand.
Colleagues Lui Por and Cheung Chi-ping, like Lam, were detained as soon as they crossed the border into China.
While Gui remains in an unknown location, Lui, Cheung and Lam were released with a set of instructions from China's state security police: to reappear in Hong Kong, refute reports of their disappearance, and claim to be voluntarily helping police with their inquiries.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Hwang Chun-mei for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.