One year after he was taken away from his holiday home in Thailand and held by Chinese police, Hong Kong bookseller and Swedish national Gui Minhai remains in detention at an unknown location, rights activists said.
Gui, who headed the Mighty Current publishing house based around the Causeway Bay Books store in Hong Kong, is the last of five booksellers to be unaccounted for after their cross-border detentions sparked accusations that Beijing had broken its treaty obligations to the city.
Gui was last seen on Oct. 17, 2015 after leaving his holiday apartment in Pattaya, Thailand, according to the Free Gui Minhai website set up by his daughter Angela to campaign for his release.
"Since then he has been in detention in mainland China without legal assistance or consular access," the website said.
Chinese authorities admitted to having detained Gui in January 2016, airing video of him "confessing" to involvement in an alleged drunk-driving accident 10 years earlier. Police claimed he had returned to China voluntarily.
"Other than this, no information on his status or whereabouts has been given to his family nor to Swedish authorities," the Free Gui Minhai site said.
In the months that followed, Causeway Bay Books store manager and British passport-holder Lee Bo, 65, went missing from his workplace in Hong Kong, and the group's general manager Lui Bo (also spelled Lui Por) and colleagues Cheung Chi-ping and Lam Wing-kei were also all detained under opaque circumstances.
The five, all of whom are permanent Hong Kong residents, were accused of selling "banned books" to customers across the internal border in mainland China.
Not applicable to Hong Kong
Beijing-based rights lawyer Shang Baojun said the charges shouldn't be applicable to residents of Hong Kong, however.
"The laws in question shouldn't have any applicability to Hong Kong, and [the booksellers] published their books in Hong Kong," Shang said in an interview on Tuesday.
"[Gui] still hasn't been formally charged," he said, adding that it remains unclear what the authorities plan to do, as no announcements have been made regarding his case.
Gui's four colleagues have since been conditionally released by Chinese police.
"A full year has gone by, yet all that’s clear is that Chinese authorities have grossly violated the rights of the five booksellers both within and outside China’s borders," Sophie Richardson, China director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a statement on the group's website.
"China’s willingness to snatch people in Thailand and Hong Kong with the apparent involvement of their governments adds to the concerns," Richardson said.
Call for immediate release
Richard Choi, deputy chairman of the Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, called on the Chinese government to release Gui immediately.
"Give Gui Minhai his freedom back now," Choi said. "We don't believe that he went back to China of his own accord: we think he was forced to go, and probably kidnapped."
"He hasn't been allowed any sort of contact with the outside world, including his family," he said. "He also hasn't been able to exercise his right to a lawyer."
"We think that this is a flagrant breach of his right to personal freedom."
While the booksellers' detention drew widespread international criticism, little has been done to put pressure on Beijing over the case, Richardson said.
U.S.-based Chinese poet Bei Ling, of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, called on Tuesday for Gui to at least be allowed a legal defense following his "kidnapping" at the hands of the authorities.
"It is exactly a year since the disappearance of Gui Minhai at the end of October last year," Bei told RFA in an interview.
"I hope that the Chinese government will hold an open trial, and explain clearly what exactly Gui did to break Chinese law," he said.
"I also hope that the Swedish embassy in China will keep updating us with information from its visits to Gui Minhai," Bei said.
Beijing's growing control
Gui's daughter Angela said her father's disappearance speaks to Beijing's growing control over free expression in Hong Kong, which was promised the continuation of its existing freedoms for 50 years from the 1997 handover from Britain to China.
"His tiny Hong Kong apartment is empty, the books and the porcelain teapots collecting dust," Angela Gui wrote in an article in The Washington Post newspaper.
"The once rapidly growing industry specializing in books about mainland politics, in which my father’s was one of the leading bookstores, has gone unusually quiet."
By kidnapping five booksellers, she wrote, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has shown that it is possible to "diminish" freedom of expression and democracy in Hong Kong.
"Perhaps the world will stand by as more foreign citizens will disappear—because they don’t fit into China’s increasingly narrow political agenda," she concluded.
A recent report by the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) said Hong Kong has seen continual erosion of the freedoms and autonomy it was promised by Beijing, which has also extended its repression of dissidents far beyond its borders.
Citing the case of the Causeway Bay booksellers, among others, it said the administration of President Xi Jinping has "run roughshod" over human rights, and called for a tougher policy from Washington.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.