Missing HK bookseller considered suicide 'many times' in China

Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee takes part in a protest on June 18, 2016 in Hong Kong. Image copyright Getty Images

A Hong Kong bookseller who went missing last year says he considered taking his own life many times while in custody in China.

Lam Wing Kee, 61, was the manager of a well-known bookstore that sold titles critical of the Chinese leadership.

Mr Lam was one of five booksellers who were imprisoned for months in cases that made international headlines.

He believes they were taken by an elite Chinese law enforcement group which targeted authors and booksellers.

One of the men, Gui Minhai, is still in custody.

Mr Lam says he contemplated suicide during his imprisonment but could not make any physical attempts because of the structure and design of his cell.

“I did consider it, from January to sometime around the Chinese new year,” he says.

“I was looking for a place up there to hang myself… but there wasn’t.”

He was not physically abused, he says, but endured months of solitary confinement, irregular interrogations and psychological torture.

HK bookseller’s ‘toothbrush suicide watch’

Mr Lam, who was released on Tuesday, told the BBC he thinks the booksellers were held in two different locations, including a secure, secret facility in eastern China.

He says he was abducted while visiting the Chinese city of Shenzhen last October.

Image copyright EPA

Mr Lam was the owner the Causeway Bay Bookstore before it was purchased by Mr Gui last year.

After being arrested, he say he was taken, blindfolded, to the eastern city of Ningbo, where he was interrogated irregularly and held until March.

In March, when three of his colleagues were released and returned to Hong Kong, Mr Lam was transferred to a room in the city of Shaoguan in Guangdong province, where he enjoyed more freedom.

China and the booksellers

1. Lui Bo, general manager. Went missing: Shenzhen, 15 October 2015 Returned: March 2016

2. Cheung Jiping, business manager. Went missing: Dongguan, 15 October Returned: March 2016

3. Gui Minhai, co-owner. Went missing: Thailand, 17 October Still missing

4. Lam Wing Kee, manager. Went missing: Shenzhen, 23 October Returned: June 2016

5. Lee Bo, shareholder. Went missing: 30 December – he says from the mainland, Mr Lam says it was from Hong Kong Returned: March 2016

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Mr Lam says he was released this week on the condition that he would retrieve a hard disk filled with the names of people, mainly mainland Chinese, who had bought books from the Mighty Current publisher.

He says he has no intention of handing over the data, and has no regrets about speaking freely about what happened to him.

Special Team

Who exactly was behind the operation to detain the booksellers, one of whom disappeared from Thailand and another from Hong Kong?

For months, there has been debate on whether the campaign was ordered by the highest levels of the Chinese leadership, or, perhaps, by lower levels of officialdom keen to impress the government in Beijing.

Some believe the crackdown was prompted by the imminent publication of a book about the private life of President Xi Jinping.

Mr Lam says he does not know for sure.

But, he says, he was held by officials from an ad-hoc cross-agency law-enforcement team that can be convened only by the senior leadership in Beijing.

This elite group has roots stretching all the way back to the Cultural Revolution, when its officers were responsible for investigating Communist Party luminaries such as Liu Shaoqi.

More recently, it was believed to be responsible for investigating former security tsar Zhou Yongkang and the former Communist Party chief in Chongqing, Bo Xilai.

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