Beijing, nawacita (CNN) – Sui Muqing says he was forced to stay awake while he was interrogated for more than four days.
Chen Taihe describes being held in a jail cell so crowded he couldn’t relieve himself.
And Peter Dahlin was left so traumatized by his experience, he slept with a knife next to his bed.
Three men, in three different parts of China. They didn’t know each other, but all had one thing in common: They advocated for human rights and became caught up in what activists say is the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown on dissent.
Rights groups say President Xi Jinping’s wide-reaching sweep on perceived threats to both his rule and the Chinese Communist Party has led to the arrests of dozens of activists, bloggers, feminists, artists and lawyers.
The men, who CNN spoke to in detail over the course of the last 12 months, describe being forcibly taken from their homes, detained for weeks, sometimes months, in secret prisons, denied communication with family and legal representation, strong-armed into making videotaped confessions, and ultimately released without being convicted of a single crime.
Sui, Chen and Dahlin all say they were explicitly told not to talk about what happened to them, but have decided to speak out anyway. They say they want to shed light on the lengths to which China’s government will go to silence anyone it deems a threat.
CNN reached out to the Chinese government for comment on each of the cases in this story, but received no response. Beijing has said regularly in the past that it does not torture prisoners and maintains these lawyers and activists are criminals dealt with under the law.
Two days later, on July 12, the same thing happened to Chen. He said police asked him to come down from his apartment to answer a few questions. “I intentionally left my cell phone upstairs in my apartment because I thought I’d be back in a few minutes.” He didn’t return for six weeks.
During a period of less than a week, at least 146 lawyers and their families were detained in a nationwide swoop according to China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group.
Rights groups say the roots of the crackdown on lawyers can be traced back to an editorial in the overseas edition of state-run People’s Daily in July 2012, which warned the United States would use five categories of people to destabilize the Communist Party’s near seven-decade rule. Rights advocates and lawyers were at the top of the list.
Dahlin, a Swedish national who co-founded a Beijing-based NGO that provided legal aid and training to Chinese lawyers, wasn’t caught up in the first wave of detentions, and assumed his status as a foreigner might offer him some protection.
In early January 2016, however, he got tipped off authorities might be after him. He was about to depart for Beijing airport when 20 police officers turned up at his apartment.
They detained him and his girlfriend and they ransacked his home, he says, seizing computers and documents.
Dahlin says he was accused of masterminding a plan to smuggle the son of Wang Yu, the first lawyer to be detained in the swoop, into Myanmar, in an effort to evade authorities in October 2015.
He said investigators realized early on he had nothing to do with it, but instead of letting him go, quickly turned their attention to his NGO — Chinese Urgent Action Working Group — pressing him to give up information about his colleagues and other activists his group worked with.
Authorities said that Dahlin worked for an illegal organization that sponsored activities that jeopardized China’s national security. The NGO said it “undertakes rapid response assistance for rights defenders in need.”
By October 2017, some 321 lawyers, rights activists, their family members and staff had been caught up in the 709 crackdown, according to the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group.
How lawyers disappear
A key tool in the crackdown has been a relatively new form of detention. In 2012, China introduced “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL) intothe Criminal Procedural Law.
It appeared to legalize a long-used practice of “black jails” — a means of temporarily detaining people outside the Chinese legal system who could not be immediately charged with a crime.
The amended law says residential surveillance shouldn’t exceed six months but requires detainees’ families be notified within 24 hours, unless they can’t be reached, and guarantees all suspects the right to a lawyer, with whom a meeting should be granted within 48 hours of a request.
Critics of the new system and former detainees say it gives arbitrary detention a legal gloss and normalizes enforced disappearances. Earlier this year, 11 countries called on China to end the practice and investigate reports of torture against human rights lawyers. The UN High Commission on Human Rights has also called on China to halt the detention of lawyers.
Chen, a professor who advocated for a US-style jury system in China on his blog, was first accused of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” — a vague charge often used by Chinese authorities that can carry a 10-year prison sentence. He told CNN he refused to admit any wrongdoing during a 20-hour interrogation, but then found himself sharing a jail cell with inmates accused of crimes ranging from petty theft to murder.
“The cell was so crammed I had to ask other prisoners to make room so I could urinate and defecate,” he said. “I didn’t have a spoon or chopsticks to eat with. We’d get one scoop of rice and would have to eat it with our hands.”
After a month, Chen said he was told to collect his belongings. He thought he was going home — but instead was driven to what appeared to be an abandoned hotel and held for another 10 days.
Earlier this year, CNN visited the nondescript building where Chen said he was held in Guilin, a southern city famed for its stunning landscape of karst mountains. Signs posted around the area in Chinese and English marked it as military property, but it otherwise appeared open and accessible.
Local officials denied that the building was used as a secret detention center.
He was taken into a room where a woman from state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) was sitting with a cameraman. Dahlin was handed a piece of paper with the questions that she would ask and the answers he would give.
“I have caused harm to the Chinese government. I have hurt the feelings of the Chinese people. I apologize sincerely for this,” Dahlin said in the confession broadcast nationwide and splashed across state-run newspapers.
Immediately after its broadcast activists denounced it as a forced confession — one of many that have been shown on CCTV in the years since Xi came to power.
Sui and Chen said they had to make similar “confessions.” All three men now maintain their innocence, but they said they had no choice but to do as authorities wanted.
Sui says he admitted to charges of inciting subversion. Chen told CNN he confessed to charges of picking quarrels and provoking troubles, inciting subversion and embezzlement.
“You have to confess,” Chen said. “Otherwise they won’t let you go.”