A Chinese rights activist in exile appears to have won a last-minute reprieve after authorities in the Netherlands were preparing to repatriate him on Thursday, amid concerns that he was being sent back under a private agreement with Beijing.
Ma Yongtao's removal process from the Netherlands came after he went suddenly incommunicado at the end of last month, amid reports that the Dutch authorities had rejected his asylum application.
He later resurfaced in immigration detention, facing imminent removal from the country. Rights activists said they were concerned at the speed of his repatriation, and called on the international community to intervene.
"Ma Yongtao has been taken to the airport in preparation for his repatriation flight to China taking off at 5.00 p.m.," Netherlands-based exiled Chinese dissident Lan Zhansheng said via his Twitter account on Thursday.
But he added: "Human rights organizations have become involved [in Ma's case] now, but it is still unclear whether he will be allowed to remain."
Lan said the tweet would be his last on the case, as he was "withdrawing from involvement in this matter."
The China Rights Observer group that Ma formerly worked for said via its Twitter account on Thursday evening that the repatriation would not be going ahead. The tweet said Ma's reprieve was "thanks to the efforts of Dutch human rights officials."
Status still unclear
However, Ma's ongoing immigration status in the Netherlands has yet to be clarified.
Lan had told RFA in an earlier interview that Ma had initially arrived in the Netherlands two years ago, seeking political asylum, but hadn't been approved as a refugee.
Ma reapplied the following year, and hadn't expected to be forcibly repatriated after a second rejection, Lan said.
"I suspect that the Dutch authorities may be in contact with the Chinese police, because the time-scale and procedures for repatriation are very unusual," he told RFA.
"Normally, people are notified about repatriation, but Ma Yongtao was suddenly taken away and never returned," he said. "Also, lawyers and human rights institutions are on vacation at this time of year."
Meanwhile, Liu Xinglian, the Thailand-based secretary-general of the group China Human Rights Observer, issued an open letter urgently calling on the international community to intervene.
He said Ma had previously worked closely with veteran jailed democracy activist Qin Yongmin at the organization.
Qin, who is currently awaiting trial for "incitement to subvert state power" at the Wuhan No. 2 Detention Center, founded the group.
Chinese Communist Party 'shenanigans '
He had been scheduled to stand trial in late December, but the date was postponed at the last minute by the authorities, who cited "procedural" reasons.
"In my opinion, this totally has a lot to do with shenanigans on the part of the Chinese Communist Party," Liu told RFA. "The Netherlands is basically a country that respects human rights, so it's very disappointing if they are now colluding with the Chinese government and trampling on human rights."
"I feel as if we don't have much time, and that we should put pressure on the Dutch immigration authorities to put human rights first, and allow Ma Yongtao to remain in the Netherlands," he said.
Online reports indicate that Ma hails from Langfang city in the northern province of Hebei, and served as the head of a village for eight years, where he began helping local residents to defend their rights.
A former participant in the New Citizens' Movement founded by jailed dissident Xu Zhiyong, Ma also served as vice-chairman of Qin's China Rights Observer in 2012.
He fled the country in 2016, and led a number of protests against Beijing's human rights record from the Netherlands.
In a brief interview with RFA last year after a protest outside the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Ma accused the Chinese government of egregious human rights violations in its targeting of human rights attorneys and associated activists in a nationwide police operation targeting more than 300 people starting on July 9, 2015.
"Two years ago, the Chinese Communist Party launched a crazed round of persecution of human rights lawyers and activists, and many people were sentenced on charges of subversion of state power, or incitement to subvert state power," Ma said at the time.
"Many of them remain behind bars to this day, and have been tortured, so we have gathered here ... to protest the Chinese authorities' oppression of prisoners of conscience," Ma said.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.