In an explosive press conference shortly after his return to the city on Thursday, a Hong Kong bookseller held in mainland China since late October described his capture, detention and mistreatment at the hands of Chinese authorities over the ensuing eight-month period.
Lam Wing-kee also revealed that he had only been released by his captors so that he could come back to Hong Kong to collect a database of customers who had purchased titles from the store where he worked, which specialized in scandalous tomes about the lives of China’s communist leadership.
However, he said that he was refusing the return to the mainland Thursday with the database as he had been instructed. “Of course I dare not return,” he said.
One of five booksellers from Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay Books believed to have been abducted by Chinese authorities late last year, Lam looked notably fatigued as he spoke for over an hour about his ordeal to a room packed with international and local media.
His detention, and that of his colleagues, is regarded in Hong Kong as the most serious breach of the city’s autonomy since 1997, when China resumed sovereignty over the former British colony on the proviso that it would preserve its freedoms and way of life for 50 years.
According to Lam’s account, he was apprehended by agents at the border between Hong Kong and China’s southern city Shenzhen, following which he was transported by train to the eastern port city of Ningbo. “I was handcuffed and my eyes were covered,” he said. “I noticed I was taken to Ningbo because I glimpsed the station when we got off the train.”
Over the ensuing months, the 61-year-old recounted, he was held in solitary confinement without access to legal representation or, for that matter, anyone from the outside world. While in custody, he was repeatedly interrogated, kept under constant surveillance and on a suicide watch.
Although Lam was not told what his crime was until his arrival in Ningbo, he referred specifically to the fact that he was arrested for mailing books to mainland China from Hong Kong, where his freedom of speech is putatively protected.
He also said he was forced to sign a statement confirming his guilt.
“It was a blatant violation of one country, two systems,” Lam told TIME, referring to the constitutional framework that is supposed to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy under Chinese sovereignty. “I think it shows that Hongkongers should be concerned for their security.”
Lam spoke at length about the company’s publisher, British citizen Paul Lee, also known as Lee Bo, whose disappearance from Hong Kong in late December led to widespread speculation that he had been abducted by mainland agents. Lee later gave an interview on mainland television in which he said he went to China of his own accord — a claim his fellow detainee vehemently dismissed on Thursday night.
Albert Ho, a pro-democracy lawmaker who accompanied Lam on Thursday night, said it didn’t appear that the bookseller had “committed any offense” across the border. “He did everything in Hong Kong, where it was perfectly lawful.”
Ho stressed the mainland government’s “noncompliance” in the Hong Kong government’s investigation of the disappearances, citing its repeated refusal to specify details on why the five had been detained.
“We are still very concerned about Lee Bo,” Ho said. “We have to pursue further until a satisfactory explanation is given.”
Speaking on CNN on Thursday night Hong Kong time, Gui’s daughter Angela said, “I hope [the Chinese authorities] know they’ve overstepped a boundary. What they need to do is release my father.”
She said that after her father’s abduction, she had been “advised not to travel to Asia at all.”
— With reporting by Yenni Kwok / Hong Kong