TAIPEI—A Taiwanese human-rights activist accused the Beijing government of mentally torturing him during his five-year imprisonment in mainland China, in his first public remarks since returning to Taiwan.
Lee Ming-che, a 47-year-old employee at a community college in Taipei who managed a charity fund for political prisoners in China, said Tuesday that he had been coerced when he pleaded guilty to subversion charges during a 2017 court hearing in Beijing.
Mr. Lee said that, during his five years in prison, he was deprived of interactions with other inmates, while his every movement and word were closely watched. He said he was forced to work long hours with little rest.
Spokespeople for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. It earlier said that Mr. Lee’s legal rights were protected while denouncing efforts to characterize his detention as a human-rights case as attempts to interfere in China’s judicial system.
Mr. Lee’s case, the first in which a Taiwanese citizen was sentenced in mainland China under a law Beijing uses to quash dissent at home, added to an already tense relationship between the two sides. China’s Communist Party claims Taiwan, a democratic, self-governing island off the coast of the mainland, as part of its territory, and has increased the pace of military actions near the island in the past two years.
Mr. Lee went missing in March 2017 after traveling to China to visit friends there. His disappearance prompted protests in Taipei and Hong Kong, while raising concerns about the safety of the tens of thousands of people from Taiwan who live and work in mainland China.
On Tuesday, Mr. Lee described being surrounded by national-security officers after crossing the border from the Chinese territory of Macau to Zhuhai, a city in mainland China, on March 19, 2017.
He said the officers placed a hood over his head and took him somewhere outside Zhuhai, though he doesn’t know where he was taken nor the exact identity of the officers who confronted him. Mr. Lee said he was then interrogated about his past work on Chinese human-rights issues.
“That’s when I knew I was doomed,” he said.
Chinese prosecutors at the time linked Mr. Lee to online chat rooms set up roughly a decade ago, where members often promoted Taiwanese and Western political systems while criticizing Communist Party rule in China.
Mr. Lee said Tuesday that while he had indeed discussed politics in an online chat room that he had helped set up, the fact that Chinese authorities had found him guilty of state subversion because of the chat room offered proof of Beijing’s suppression of free speech.
In his trial, during which he said he was forced to read out a plea prepared by authorities, Mr. Lee pleaded guilty to a charge of subverting state power. He said that authorities had warned him that he could be sentenced to life imprisonment if he didn’t cooperate.
Mr. Lee on Tuesday expressed contrition for his plea. “I’m sorry if I let any Taiwanese down,” he said, adding that he was simply doing what he needed to do to regain his freedom. “Everything I did after my abduction was wanting to go home.”
Mr. Lee also affirmed his loyalty to Taiwan.
“I never forget I’m Taiwanese,” Mr. Lee said, adding that he felt confident enough to push back against pressure he received to plead guilty on a separate charge of conspiring against Beijing—a charge that he said “would implicate the entire Taiwanese government.”
“I cannot betray my country,” he said.
Two months after his trial, Mr. Lee was sentenced in November 2017 to five years in prison.
Mr. Lee’s time in prison was difficult, he recalled. At the prison, in a remote part of the central Chinese province of Hunan, Mr. Lee said he worked 11 to 12 hours a day under sweatshop-like conditions making shoes, bags and gloves. He called the prison a “slavery factory” and described the prison food as rancid.
Mr. Lee said he was initially given only four days off each year, during China’s Lunar New Year holiday, though he and his fellow inmates were later able to win one day off each week after his wife, Lee Ching-yu, campaigning on his behalf, described Mr. Lee’s living and working conditions to the media.
Mr. Lee was also limited at first to cold showers, though he said he believes his wife’s advocacy from afar was able to get him hot water during the winter.
Although Mr. Lee said he wasn’t physically abused by Chinese officers, he said he was restricted from talking to most inmates throughout his sentence, which he described as “mental torture.”
“They tried to monitor every word and deed of mine,” he said, adding that inmates who spoke to him were punished with a period of solitary confinement.
Ms. Lee, who appeared at her husband’s side on Tuesday, was a vocal campaigner for his freedom, holding news conferences around the world to drum up support, including at the U.S. Congress and the U.K. Parliament.
Ms. Lee said there were moments during which she was tempted to compromise to win her husband back, for instance by quietly negotiating a deal with Beijing to have him freed, but she ultimately decided that it was important for Mr. Lee to return to Taiwan without sacrificing his dignity.
“I only hoped for Lee Ming-che to be able to come back like a man,” Ms. Lee said. “I could beg for a compromise and be subdued by China, just to bring back the body of Lee Ming-che. But that would only hurt the people I know and I love.”
After more than five years, Mr. Lee was reunited with his wife when he returned to Taiwan last month, though Taiwan’s pandemic measures meant they were only able to see each other through a thick pane of glass at a quarantine facility.
“There was no such a scene where we could hug and kiss each other,” Ms. Lee said Tuesday. “But I was looking at him through the glass, and spoke with him on the phone from 2 p.m. that day, for 16 hours.”
She added: “We talked about how we had missed each other in the past five years.”
Write to Joyu Wang at [email protected]
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