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Is China spying on Uighurs abroad?

Sweden arrested Uighur exile Babur Mehsut last month on charges of 'refugee espionage.'

By Ritt GoldsteinCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 14, 2009

Uighur, Tibetan, and Mongol demonstrators protest against China, in Stockholm, July 9. Swedish Security Police arrested a Uighur exile on charges of "refugee espionage" against Sweden's Uighur community.

Bertil Ericson/Scanpix/REUTERS


Dalarna, Sweden

The arrest in Sweden of a Uighur exile on charges of "refugee espionage" last month hints at how far China's efforts may extend to keep tabs on the ethnic group it considers a threat to the state.

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The Swedish Security Police (Säpo) arrested Babur Mehsut, a Uighur exile and naturalized Swedish citizen, on June 4. According to Tomas Lindstrand, chief prosecutor of Sweden's International Prosecutor's Office, the crime involves the "unlawful acquisition and distribution of information relating to individuals for the benefit of a foreign power," in this case, China.

Mr. Lindstrand states that the alleged crimes occurred from January 2008 to June of this year in Sweden and abroad. Mr. Mehsut is known to have attended a meeting of the World Uyghur Congress in Washington this May.

Analysts and Uighur exiles say that China has an intelligence network aimed at monitoring developments in the Uighur diaspora and trying to sow dissension within and among Uighur groups. There is also wide agreement that Uighur operatives involved in the network are often coerced into it by the Chinese authorities.

Uighur expatriates can face "threats" to their family members still living in China, with the Chinese authorities seeking "to stop behavior they don't like, or encourage behavior they want," says Gardner Bovingdon, a Central Eurasia expert at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Diplomatic row ensues

Shortly after Mehsut's arrest, Sweden expelled a Chinese diplomat; Beijing promptly expelled a Swedish diplomat in return. Repeated attempts to get a comment by Chinese officials at Stockholm's Chinese Embassy have proved fruitless, and the Swedish Foreign Ministry had no comment on either Mehsut's arrest or the diplomatic expulsions.

Ministry spokeswoman Cecilia Julin did, however, say that the ministry is acting in accord with the statement on Säpo's website that "democratic states do not engage in refugee espionage."

Keeping tabs on Guantánamo detainee?

The tensions between China and Sweden over Sweden's Uighurs date back to at least November 2007, when Adil Hakimjan, one of the Uighurs who had been incarcerated at Guantánamo, the United States prison camp, was released and sought political asylum in Sweden. Sweden has a Chinese Uighur population of about 100.