BEIJING (Reuters) - A Swedish bookseller whose mysterious disappearance sparked fears he may have been abducted by Chinese agents said he had voluntarily turned himself in to the authorities over a fatal drink-driving offense more than a decade ago.
Gui Minhai, who disappeared from his apartment in Thailand in October, returned to China to answer a 2004 conviction for killing a student in a hit-and-run, state media said on Sunday.
“I am returning to surrender by personal choice, it has nothing to do with anyone,” Gui, looking distraught, said in a China Central Television (CCTV) broadcast. “This is a personal responsibility that I ought to bear.”
Gui, a naturalized Swedish citizen, is one of five members to have gone missing from a Hong Kong bookstore that specializes in gossipy political books on China’s Communist Party leaders.
The disappearances, and China’s silence, have prompted fears that mainland Chinese authorities may be using shadowy tactics that erode the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong has been governed since its return to China from British rule in 1997.
In recent years, state media have publicized a string of what are presented as confessions made by high-profile suspects. Critics say these accounts deprive the accused of the right to a fair trial.
It was not possible to contact Gui and it remains unclear whether he has a lawyer.
Sweden continues “to seek clarifications from the Chinese authorities” on Gui’s case, said Gabriella Augustsson, head of public diplomacy for the Swedish embassy in Beijing.
In a telephone interview from Britain, where she is studying, Gui’s daughter Angela, 21, said her father’s televised confession appeared “ridiculous” and contrived.
“I’ve not heard of this supposed (hit-and-run) accident,” she said, adding she did not believe her father would have returned to China on his own without telling her.
“It comes across as quite ridiculous to me, really. I don’t believe it ... that he returned on his own,” she said, noting she had a friendly relationship with her father.
Hours after the TV broadcast, she said she received a message from her father’s Skype account saying: “Hi Angela, I’m ok. Please don’t worry about me. I have returned to China on my own to sort some personal problems. If anybody asks about me, please keep quiet.”
She said this didn’t sound like something her father would say, and was not the way he would normally communicate with her.
Angela Gui, who was born and raised in Sweden, said she had spoken to her father a few days before he went missing in October, and they had agreed to speak again soon - but that never happened.
She told Reuters earlier that she still believed her father had been abducted and his detention was related to his work. “There’s got to be a reason it happened now and that the others were taken as well,” she said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei declined to elaborate on the case at a daily news briefing. “As for the relevant case, the media reports are already quite detailed,” he said.
In the broadcast, Gui warned “any individual or organization” against intervening or “engaging in malicious speculation”.
China’s official Xinhua News Agency later reported that Gui “surrendered to public security organs” in October. It gave no details about his surrender or transport from Thailand.
Gui fled China in 2006 after he was given a suspended 2-year jail term for killing a female student in the coastal city of Ningbo while driving drunk, the report said. His 2-year probation was revoked, and he is now suspected of other crimes, it added.
The five missing booksellers include Lee Bo, a British passport holder who disappeared from Hong Kong at the end of last month.
Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying said on Monday the government was taking the case seriously and would continue to investigate the circumstances of those missing.
In a statement late on Monday, the Hong Kong government said it received a notice from authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong acknowledging that Lee is in mainland China. Hong Kong authorities said they were requesting a meeting with Lee.
In a note dated Jan. 3 and purportedly hand-written and signed by Lee, he said he had traveled to China in order to assist with an unspecified “investigation”.
Hong Kong’s Civic Party plans a demonstration to Beijing’s representative office in the financial hub on Tuesday to protest against the case of the missing booksellers.
Additional reporting by Anne Marie Roantree, Clare Jim, Donny Kwok and Stella Tsang in Hong Kong; Editing by Ian Geoghegan