WASHINGTON -- Attorneys are asking the Biden administration to release from immigration custody a Chinese democracy advocate who could be deported to his homeland to face what they say are false charges — despite the lack of an extradition treaty between the United States and China.
Human rights advocates say this is one of a handful of cases in which China has used the Interpol “red notice” system to try to force the return of dissidents from the United States. Under the red notice system, a member country of the international police consortium can ask other countries to arrest and return fugitives living abroad. It’s not clear how often, if ever, this tactic has resulted in the U.S. turning over detainees to Chinese authorities.
The man was arrested in June and is being held in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center. The Associated Press is withholding the man’s name because a sibling still living in China has reported being threatened by government agents with criminal charges unless his brother returns to the country.
ICE says it arrested the man for overstaying his visa and has not commented on whether the Chinese charges led to his detention. But the man's attorneys say China is exploiting the U.S. immigration system to bypass American efforts to fight Beijing's targeting of dissidents. The man and his immediate family are seeking asylum in the U.S.
A red notice issued in January accuses the man of being the ringleader of a conspiracy to make illegal profits through a mining business and recruit former prisoners to attack a supposed enemy. The man's advocates say other documents from China's legal system show he is being framed for crimes that have already been linked to others.
“There are countries that abuse the Interpol red notice system, especially including China," said John Sandweg, one of the man's attorneys. Sandweg, a former acting director of ICE, said the agency risked being manipulated by red notices and becoming "a tool to continue the persecution of law abiding activists and dissidents.”
ICE says the man was detained for overstaying his visa after entering the country in September. The agency did not directly answer a question about whether it arrested the man because of the red notice or how this would affect his case. It said that “in some instances, the interest of another law enforcement agency” in the U.S. or abroad “may inform the analysis” of whether someone is deported or released.
China's embassy in Washington and Interpol did not respond to requests for comment.
According to his attorneys, the man served as a village chief when Chinese authorities sought to seize a friend's home for a planned industrial park. The man says he allowed villagers to protest peacefully and helped the friend protest the central government directly.
The man says he was jailed for 30 days in retaliation and eventually fled with his family to Hong Kong, where he joined in the territory's protests amid Beijing's efforts to tighten control. Fearing that he would be arrested again, he says he and his family entered the United States last year on a visa that gave them six months' legal permission.
The man's attorneys say he first learned of the Interpol red notice against him when an ICE attorney notified him following an immigration court hearing. The red notice says an arrest warrant was issued last August, and he faces a possible life sentence.
“What ICE doesn’t understand well is that (an) Interpol Red Notice from China is highly political and not a reliable indicator for real criminal activities,” said Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at the advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
China aggressively pursues the repatriation of people it considers opponents of Communist Party leadership, including people living in the United States in what American authorities have alleged are extralegal campaigns to harass and stalk targets.
A federal grand jury this month indicted nine people on allegations they served as agents in “Operation Fox Hunt,” which the Chinese government has characterized as an effort to track down corrupt officials and criminals abroad. The Justice Department called Operation Fox Hunt “extralegal” and alleges the indicted people “conducted surveillance of and engaged in a campaign to harass, stalk and coerce” people wanted by Beijing to return to China.
Interpol was criticized in 2016 after a top Chinese official, Meng Hongwei, was elected as its president, with some warning that China would be newly assertive.
Meng's four-year term would be cut short when he vanished in 2018 during a visit to China from France, where he and his family had moved.
Meng eventually resurfaced to plead guilty to fraud charges and was sentenced to 13 years in prison. His wife, who eventually received asylum in France along with their children, has said she believes Meng was a victim of political persecution.