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China sentences Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai to 10 years' jail

Jing Xuan TENG
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Placards showing missing bookseller Lee Bo (left) and his associate Gui Minhai (right) are left outside the China liaison office in Hong Kong following a January 2016 protest

Placards showing missing bookseller Lee Bo (left) and his associate Gui Minhai (right) are left outside the China liaison office in Hong Kong following a January 2016 protest (AFP Photo/Philippe LOPEZ)

China has sentenced Swedish book publisher Gui Minhai to 10 years in prison on charges of illegally providing intelligence abroad, and claimed him as a citizen, prompting Stockholm to call for his release in a case that has rattled diplomatic relations.

Gui, one of five Hong Kong-based booksellers known for publishing salacious titles about China's political leaders, was snatched by authorities while on a train to Beijing in February 2018, the second time he disappeared into mainland custody.

A court in the eastern city of Ningbo said Chinese-born Gui was sentenced Monday to 10 years in jail, and claimed he had also voluntarily reinstated his Chinese citizenship in 2018.

Since Beijing does not recognise dual citizenship, "China, according to law, only recognises him as a Chinese citizen", foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Tuesday.

But Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde on Tuesday said in a statement to AFP that Stockholm continues to call for Gui's release and "demand access to our citizen to give him the consular support he has the right to".

The Swedish foreign ministry told AFP that citizenship can "only be renounced after an examination and a decision by the Swedish Migration Agency" and that Gui remained a citizen.

Later Tuesday, the ministry summoned China's ambassador and "reiterated our demands that Gui Minhai be released," spokesman Johan Ndisi told AFP.

- 'He just published some books' -

Gui first vanished in 2015 while on holiday in Thailand and eventually surfaced at an undisclosed location in China, confessing to involvement in a fatal traffic accident and smuggling illegal books.

He served two years in prison, but a few months after his October 2017 release, he was again arrested -- while on a train to Beijing accompanied by Swedish diplomats.

His supporters and family claim his detention is part of a political repression campaign.

"He hasn't done anything wrong, he just published some books," said Lam Wing-kee, another Hong Kong bookseller previously detained by Chinese authorities.

"Obviously (it) is meant as a warning to those who oppose China."

The Ningbo court also sentenced Gui to five years of "deprivation of political rights" -- which in practice means he cannot lead state-owned enterprises or hold positions in state organs.

Zhao said Gui's alleged crime "seriously damages China's national security and interests".

"China resolutely opposes any country, any organisation, and anyone's using any form to interfere in China's internal affairs and judicial sovereignty," he said.

- Rights prize -

A video released by China three weeks after Gui's disappearance showed him purportedly confessing wrongdoing and blaming Sweden for "sensationalising" his case and "instigating" law-breaking behaviour.

Gui's friend, dissident poet Bei Ling, said at the time that Gui's confession was likely made under coercion.

Chinese criminal suspects often appear in videotaped "confessions" that rights groups say sometimes bear the hallmarks of official arm-twisting.

The Ningbo court's decision to highlight Gui's citizenship was "obviously politically motivated" and intended to stop Sweden from assisting him, Amnesty International researcher Patrick Poon told AFP.

Gui's detention has put a strain on relations between Sweden and China in recent years, with Stockholm repeatedly calling for his release.

China called off two business delegation visits to Sweden after Culture Minister Amanda Lind defied a Chinese threat of "counter-measures" and presented a rights prize to Gui in November.

Sweden's former envoy to China, Anna Lindstedt, is being investigated for allegedly overstepping her duties by arranging an unauthorised meeting between Gui's daughter and Chinese businessmen in an effort to get Gui freed.

Yang Hengjun, a Chinese-born Australian writer known for his series of spy novels, has also been detained in China since January 2019 and was recently charged with spying.

He reportedly once worked in China's foreign ministry in Hainan province -- although this has been denied by Beijing.