Veteran Chinese rights activist barred from boarding Qatar Airways flight to Ecuador

US Embassy rejected Liang Songji’s request for an emergency meeting
By Gao Feng for RFA Mandarin
Veteran Chinese rights activist barred from boarding Qatar Airways flight to Ecuador Chinese rights activist Liang Songji has been repeatedly jailed by the Chinese authorities for criticizing the Chinese Communist Party.
Credit: Wang Yanfang

A prominent rights activist from the southern Chinese province of Guangzhou has been prevented from boarding a Qatar Airways flight from Bangkok to Ecuador, where he had hoped to take his family to claim political asylum in the United States.

Liang Songji, who has been repeatedly jailed by the Chinese authorities for his peaceful criticism of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, said he had planned to take the July 13 flight to Ecuador but was prevented from checking in by airline staff.

"As soon as Qatar Airlines swiped my passport, they gave it straight back to me," Liang said, adding that staff refused to check the family in, although they had the right tickets, visas, COVID-19 test certificates and evidence of hotel reservations for all three family members.

"The staff told me that this was due to a decision made at senior levels [in their company]. When they looked into it further, they said it was the Ecuadorian government's decision not to allow the three of us to board."

Liang said he is skeptical about the claim that his apparent travel ban came from the Ecuadorian foreign ministry, and has tried to meet with U.S. consular officials in Bangkok, given that he plans to claim political asylum in that country.

He said he had planned to 'walk the line' from Ecuador northwards to Mexico overland, a route taken by a growing number of Chinese nationals fleeing their home country in what has been dubbed the "run" movement.

"Ecuador is a very hot route [for Chinese fleeing China] right now, because everyone travels north from there to get to the United States and Canada," Liang said. "I'd figured that even if I ran out of money, we could stay in Ecuador."

"The real question is whether this really is coming from Ecuador – I think it probably isn't," he said. "It's all over the internet that there is a visa-free entrance agreement between China and Ecuador."

Liang said airline staff had refused to issue a refund for his family's three tickets.

On Friday, he presented himself at the U.S. Embassy in Thailand, requesting an emergency meeting with a diplomat.

"They rejected my request," said Liang, who arrived in Thailand last month, and whose Thai tourist visa expired on Saturday.

"I really don't know what plans I can make now," he said. "It's impossible for me to return to China now."

Emails sent to the U.S. State Department and to Qatar Airways’ headquarters requesting comment went unanswered since Friday.

Beaten and strip-searched 

Liang was arrested in November 2018 after he witnessed the forcible strip-searching and beating of Guangzhou rights attorney Sun Shihua by police in the city, and later sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment for "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," a catch-all charge frequently used to target peaceful critics of the government.

An associate who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals said Liang had been trying to leave China since 2015.

Liang Songji was arrested in November 2018 after witnessing the forcible strip-searching and beating of Guangzhou rights attorney Sun Shihua [shown] by police. Credit: Courtesy of Sun Shihua

"It wouldn't be an issue if it was just him, he could apply for a United Nations refugee card like others have done, but there are three of them to think about," the associate said.

Rights groups and academic researchers say Beijing often joins forces with its political allies to force overseas dissidents to return to China, as well as putting huge pressure on any loved ones they leave behind.

Governments around the world have launched investigations into police "service stations" run on foreign soil by the provincial police department in the southeastern province of Fujian, while activists and dissidents have spoken out about threats and retaliation by the state security police or pro-China businessmen overseas.

Chinese political refugees in Thailand, many of whom smuggled themselves across Southeast Asia to escape persecution by the authorities back home, say the country is no longer a safe haven for dissidents, as the Thai authorities seem increasingly willing to hand them back over to Beijing.

Several Chinese asylum-seekers—some of whom were recognized by the United Nations as genuine refugees—have been deported for immigration violations, throwing the expatriate dissident community into a state of constant fear, according to interviews given to Radio Free Asia.

In July 2018, authorities in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing jailed rights activist Dong Guangping and political cartoonist Jiang Yefei after they were sent home from Thailand as they were awaiting resettlement as political refugees, prompting an international outcry.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.


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