Texan Mark Swidan had been in China sourcing building materials for his business when Chinese police raided his Guangzhou hotel room and arrested him on November 13, 2012.
It would be weeks later before the US consulate tracked him down and found out he had been arrested and detained on drug trafficking charges.
It took a year before Swidan saw trial in the Jiangmen intermediate people’s court, and another five before he was found guilty, sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve in April 2019.
The conviction appeared to come out of the blue, at the same time US officials were in Beijing for trade talks.
Amid deepening hostilities between Beijing and the US, Canada, and other western nations, there are fears such cases are being leveraged.
Swidan is by no means the only foreigner to be detained in China. His case has attracted little publicity, but is now discussed in the context of growing hostilities between the Chinese Communist party and the US and other western allies.
Amid tit-for-tat consulate closures, sanctions, and a growing number of criminal prosecutions that appear to be retaliatory or diplomatically strategic, governments are also warning their citizens in China they they are at increased risk of arbitrary detention.
Swidan’s supporters say the little evidence supporting his arrest, let alone conviction, was weak and circumstantial. Humanitarian and prisoner advocacy group Dui Hua says no forensic evidence has been produced linking him to any drug transaction.
John Kamm, the chairman of Dui Hua says, “He has never seen such a violation of an individual’s due process rights. It is appalling”.
“In my opinion he’s been persecuted, he’s been set up,” Kamm tells the Guardian from San Francisco.
China’s judicial system is notoriously harsh and lacking in judicial fairness. Around 99% of cases end in conviction, and while there are occasional acquittals, they are rare.
In February, the United Nations working group on arbitrary detention concluded that Swidan had been arbitrarily detained in violation of international law, and urged his immediate release “with compensation and other reparations”. Nothing has happened.
In a 2019 report on capital punishment, Amnesty International said the death penalty in Chinese drug-related cases “appeared to play a central role in the middle of political stand-offs with some foreign countries”.
In June Australian man Karm Gilespie – whose seven-year detention in China was until then unknown – was found guilty of drugs charges and sentenced to death. The sudden ruling five years after his trial coincided with China and Australia having one of their worst diplomatic rows in decades.
Last month another Australian citizen, business journalist for Chinese state media Cheng Lei, was taken into the secretive form of solitary detention by Chinese authorities for reasons still unknown.
In December 2018 Canadian authorities arrested the Chinese Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. Just days later former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor were arrested in a move widely seen as retaliatory.
This month a Chinese court sentenced Canadian Xu Weihong to death on drugs charges.
China denies the cases are linked to politics. When asked about Xu’s sentence, a spokesman for the foreign ministry said it saw no impact on China-Canada relations. “I want to stress that Chinese judiciary independently handles the case in strict accordance with Chinese law and legal procedures.”
“I’ve come to the view that basically all cases involving Americans have a political element,” says Kamm. “Especially these days. The way things are, the Chinese government is in no mood to do anything for Americans.” (Source: The Guardian)