Sky Net: Prosecution or persecution?

Sky Net: Prosecution or persecution?

China’s lack of judicial openness raises extradition concerns


China bills its ominously named Operation Sky Net as a global crackdown on corrupt officials, law-breaking financiers and money launderers. Now more than two years in the making, the operation launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping has claimed many victories in its quest to root out graft, including the extraditions of high-ranking Communist Party and military officials.

“The legal net is vast and the guilty will not escape,” the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) wrote on its website in 2015. “You can run from the country but not the law.”

China’s global dragnet, however, has many scholars, human rights workers and countries harboring Chinese fugitives seeking a pause in the action. The reasons are myriad: China has a history of executing people for noncapital offenses, as defined by the United Nations. Its justice system lacks transparency, and many of its extradition requests are politically sensitive.

In March 2017, Australia’s Parliament refused to ratify an extradition treaty with China because of concern over Beijing’s human rights record. “There is an obvious dilemma between the need to promote international cooperation against transnational financial crime — including through extradition — and legitimate concerns about China’s domestic legal system,” said Bertram Lang, a research associate at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin.

There are only a few Western countries to have extradition treaties with China. France and Spain have extradition treaties, and Beijing has approached Canada about negotiating one.

Taiwan legislator Johnny Chiang displays a video showing Taiwan citizens being detained at a police station in Kenya. Taiwan protested in April 2016 that people cleared of criminal charges by a Kenyan court were being illegally held at China’s request. [AFP/GETTY IMAGES]

The Australian Parliament’s most recent refusal to ratify an extradition treaty with China is reflective of such human rights concerns. Lang, who studied extradition treaties and policing agreements between European countries and China, said nations hosting Chinese fugitives can’t be sure what type of justice will be administered to the people they send back.

“China’s domestic anti-corruption campaign, while showing strong political resolve to tackle the problem, is mainly run by opaque, paralegal disciplinary bodies of the Community Party [the CCDI],” Lang said. “They start most investigations by running secret investigations and often interrogating suspects in dark prisons, with only 4 to 5 percent of cases handed over to public prosecutors.”

Dissenters or criminals?

A significant hurdle for countries facing extradition requests is China’s unwillingness to offer evidence of criminal behavior, human rights workers say. In a February 2017 report, “They Target My Human Rights Work as a Crime: Annual Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in China (2016),” a coalition of nongovernmental organizations called China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) said China engages in the harassment, torture and imprisonment of human rights workers. China in 2016 “rolled out a series of draconian laws and regulations which give police greater power to criminalize human rights activities,” the CHRD report says.

China’s so-called Shuanggui disciplinary process, administered by the CCDI, is “highly problematic” from a human rights perspective, Lang added, “not only because of its opacity, but also because torture is said to be still common practice in these interrogations.”

“In addition, corruption continues to be subject to the death penalty in extreme cases. For all these reasons, it is very difficult for other countries to ensure basic standards of international extradition law in cooperation with China,” Lang said.

Complicating matters is the fact that execution numbers in China remain a state secret. The U.S.-based human rights group Dui Hua estimates that China executed 2,400 people in 2013 and that number remained largely unchanged in 2014 and 2015, The Associated Press (AP) reported. Although no public figures exist regarding executions linked to Sky Net, the CHRD says Xi introduced laws that limit freedom of expression, association and religion and has criminalized political activities as security threats.

China points to crimes such as telecommunications fraud and bribery as reasons for its crackdown, while the CHRD report illustrates what can happen to Chinese citizens who simply speak out against Communist Party ideology. Wu Gan, a human rights activist detained in May 2015, said his captors kept him away from his lawyers until December 2016. Wu told his lawyers that Chinese authorities tried to force his confession and that they interrogated him more than 300 times, placed him in solitary confinement and tortured him.

Politics and money

With that stark picture of a domestic legal system in mind, many countries wrestle with the political overtones of Beijing’s extradition requests, Lang said. An increasing number of extraditions show China is using economic pressure on countries to deport Taiwan people and ethnic Uighurs back to mainland China, he added.

China claims sovereignty over Taiwan under its “One China” policy, which dictates that only one China exists and Taiwan is part of it. This thorny issue puts extradition partners with China in the sensitive position of taking sides, Lang said. “Many extradition cases are inherently political,” he said, adding that a rules-based approach to extraditions by the European Union (EU) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) “would most certainly increase legal certainty and reduce individual government’s discretion.”

Spain’s extradition of about 200 Taiwan citizens to China is a case in point, he said. Taiwan in February 2017 said it regretted a decision by Spain to deport 200 Taiwan citizens suspected of telecom fraud to mainland China instead of Taiwan, Reuters reported. The Spanish government said the deportations were part of a yearlong internet fraud investigation, while the Taiwan Foreign Ministry said the deportations “infringed upon the rights and interests of our people and ignored the tradition of the EU countries’ emphasis on human rights,” Reuters reported.

Since China invests heavily in Africa and Europe, financial pressures also come into play. An unusual case unfolded in Kenya in April 2016 when 45 Taiwan citizens were forced out of the country and onto a plane bound for China. Kenya’s courts had cleared 22 of the 45 suspects accused of telecom fraud, according to Forbes magazine, and simply asked the others to leave the country. Taiwan objected, but Kenya responded that it enjoyed diplomatic relations with China — not Taiwan. At the time, China hinted the Taiwan detainees had committed fraud against Chinese citizens.

Cambodian and Chinese police officials stand guard over 25 Taiwan nationals who were deported to China on fraud charges in June 2016. [AFP/GETTY IMAGES]

China had the economic upper hand. Between 2000 and 2014, China loaned U.S. $5.2 billion to government- or state-owned enterprises in Kenya, according to the China-Africa Research Initiative of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Kenya’s decision is not unique either. In addition to Spain’s deportation of 200 Taiwan citizens, Malaysia and Cambodia also have deported citizens of Taiwan to China, AP reported.

Taiwan isn’t the only politically sensitive narrative surrounding Beijing’s extradition requests. Ethnic Uighurs have been favorite extradition targets for China. Thailand, for example, faced a torrent of criticism in July 2015 when it agreed to deport 109 Uighurs to China despite fears the Chinese would persecute them, AP reported. The United Nations refugee agency called Thailand’s action “a flagrant violation of international law.”

Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in China’s Xinjiang region. While Uighurs say they experience religious oppression, Beijing often blames Uighur separatists for terror attacks. Thailand is one of a handful of Indo-Asia-Pacific countries that have complied with Beijing’s requests. Cambodia and Laos have repatriated Uighurs to China, and Kazakhstan in 2011 sent a Uighur teacher to China who was outspoken about torture and death in Chinese jails, Radio Free Asia reported.

Crime-fighting cooperation

Regardless of whether extradition treaties exist, nations in the Indo-Asia-Pacific and around the world find themselves needing to work with China to fight transnational crime, including drug trafficking, cyber crime and money laundering.

By its own admission, China has become a hub for synthetic drug trafficking and is strengthening its efforts to fight this growing problem. China’s seizures of methamphetamine, ketamine and other synthetic drugs surged by 106 percent in 2016 compared with the previous year, said Liu Yuejin, vice director of the China National Narcotics Control Commission, according to an Agence France-Presse report.

The problem extends beyond China’s borders. “Domestic production of crystalline methamphetamine, ketamine, and NPS [new psychoactive substances] was severe, not only consumed in the country but also smuggled overseas,” Liu said.

Meng Hongwei, this page, was named president of Interpol in November 2016. His ascension worries some who object to Interpol’s involvement in political prosecutions. [REUTERS]

Lang and colleague Thomas Eder wrote in a January 2017 article for The Diplomat, an online news magazine, that EU nations should “develop a strategy for cooperating with China in these areas, rather than each member state going it alone. European governments need a consistent common position on demands for judicial reforms in China or for even stronger safeguards. This is the only way to prevent bilateral agreements with China from undermining international legal norms and democratic values.”

While many EU member states have legal assistance agreements with China, only seven — Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania, Spain, Portugal, France and Italy — have formal extradition treaties with Beijing, according to Lang’s research.

Red notices

When countries want help tracking down fugitives, they turn to the international police agency Interpol.

China, famous for seeking “red notices” — the equivalent of international arrest warrants — from Interpol, now has a man in the agency’s top post. Meng Hongwei, who was China’s vice minister for public security, was elected by Interpol delegates as Interpol president in November 2016.

Interpol’s charter bars it from engaging in political activities, but human rights advocates worry that China will use Interpol to detain political opponents. As part of Xi’s crackdown, China has punished more than 1 million officials. Their sentences ranged from lengthy prison terms to demotions, and many of the suspects were associated with Hu Jintao, who was Xi’s predecessor.

“The appointment of Meng Hongwei is alarming, given China’s long-standing practice of trying to use Interpol to arrest dissidents and refugees abroad,” Amnesty International East Asia Director Nicholas Becquelin said in a statement following Meng’s election.

Lang said human rights protections can be negotiable with China. “China’s approach to extradition agreements is highly differentiated,” he said. “Beijing has been ready to accept high legal standards in treaties with Western countries, like France or Italy, while at the same time undermining international principles through substandard agreements and highly politicized extradition requests to Central and South Asian countries.”

Multinational organizations such as ASEAN and the EU could play a role, Lang believes, in setting up a rules-based framework for extraditions.

“While it is unrealistic to promote changes within China’s domestic legal system through external pressures,” he said, “it is essential to obtain legal guarantees at least in those cases directly concerned by extradition and mutual legal assistance with Chinese authorities.”