Chinese officials have held a Swedish human rights worker for over a week, and won’t let his government visit him

Security personnel at Beijing airport.
Security personnel at Beijing airport.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung Hoon
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This story has been updated with a statement from Chinese Urgent Action Working Group.

A Swedish director of a human rights group in China was detained in Beijing and has been in Chinese custody since Jan. 4, without being allowed to see Swedish government officials.

The Swedish embassy in Beijing is “aware of the detention” of a Swedish citizen working at the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, an embassy spokesman told Quartz, and the matter is “under discussion.” The spokesman said he could provide no further information.

The detainee in question is Peter Dahlin, previously referred to erroneously as Peter Beckenridge. Dahlin, a co-founder of the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, disappeared sometime after 9pm on Jan. 3 while heading to Beijing Capital Airport, the group said in a statement. He was scheduled to fly to Thailand via Hong Kong shortly after midnight. Peter’s girlfriend, a Chinese national, has also disappeared, the group said.

He was detained on Jan. 4  on suspicion of “endangering state security” according to Chinese authorities, the group said. “Peter’s ongoing detention for supporting legal aid in China makes a mockery of President Xi Jinping’s stated commitments to the rule of law,” says Michael Caster, a spokesman for the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group.

Dahlin suffers from Addison’s disease, a rare endocrine disorder that requires daily medication, according to the organization. The Swedish government asked to visit Dahlin several times since he was placed in custody, but those requests have been rejected, the group said.

Gabriella Augustsson, the counselor of public diplomacy for the Swedish embassy in China told Quartz that “the Swedish government has made requests to visit” Dahlin, but would not say whether those requests were honored.

Founded in 2009, the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group works to “strengthen Chinese rule of law by encouraging improved policy, and particularly in strengthening enforcement of the legal system,” according to a description on a nonprofit website. The group provides legal aid and trains rural lawyers in human rights law, to fight violations of “unlawful behavior by local government” and others. The group has a reputation for operating within China’s legal framework, other human rights advocates told Quartz.

The group’s last case, according to its Chinese-language website, is that of Ni Yulan, a lawyer who defended victims of forced eviction. According to the site, Ni was left permanently disabled after being tortured in prison in 2002, and was sentenced to a further two and a half years in 2012 for “causing trouble.” Ni was released in October of 2013.

China drafted a new law covering foreign NGOs last year that human rights experts consider “draconian.” It makes it illegal for foreign NGOs to “endanger China’s national unity,” harm “national interests,” or “violate public order.” Those phrases that have been applied to local or foreign individuals who agitate for human rights in China. The law also requires them to partner with government offices and submit their plans for approval, and forbids foreign NGOs from recruiting local citizens as volunteers.

An estimated 1,000 foreign NGOs operate in China, with thousands more providing support to local NGOs working on issues from labor rights to women’s equality. The new law means that “anything from a university exchange to a visiting orchestra could be denied entry based on something said or done that is perceived to be against China,” the Economist explained earlier.

The draft law has not yet come into effect, but Dahlin’s detention is a chilling sign. “Peter’s detention appears to be a preview of what we will see once this law is passed,” Maya Wang, a researcher with the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, told Quartz. “Being a foreign national—which used to provide some protection in China—will not shield anyone from the authorities’ long-standing hostility towards human rights work.”