According to a new investigation, Chinese officials arrested around 2,500 “fugitives” from abroad and returned them to China during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Guardian report, the fugitives were apprehended as part of a programme that used tactics ranging from family intimidation to “state-sanctioned kidnapping.”

In a report released on Tuesday, the human rights group Safeguard Defenders believes that more than 10,000 people have been repatriated since Beijing initiated Operation Fox Hunt in 2014, followed by Sky Net in 2015. Despite worldwide lockdowns and travel restrictions, at least 1,421 persons were brought back to China during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 1,114 in 2021, according to government statistics. Only those apprehended for alleged economic crimes or crimes related to their official activities are included in the numbers.

395 Uyghurs deported or returned to China in July: Report

The year’s operations were regarded as fruitful by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) in December 2021. Sky Net was transferred to the National Supervision Commission, a newly constituted non-judicial authority in 2018. The commission revived the initiative in February 2021, expanding it to include fugitives from the domains of politics, law, and civil affairs. Activists and dissidents, particularly Uyghurs and Hongkongers residing abroad, are increasingly targeted, according to human rights organisations. Uyghur Human Rights Project reported 395 cases of Uyghurs deported, extradited, or returned to China in July.

Outside of official bilateral agreements on extradition and deportation, techniques for forcing someone back to China can range from refusing to renew a passport to exploiting the Interpol red alert system to have international warrants issued, according to the report. Exit prohibitions and intimidation of targets’ family members in China, as well as in-person threats by Chinese operatives working on foreign soil, are among them.

At the other end of the spectrum are crimes that Safeguard Defenders labelled “state-sanctioned kidnappings,” but Beijing refers to them as irregular techniques. This sometimes involved clandestine operations in collaboration with host nation forces or duping the target into travelling to a third country where they might be extradited. Safeguard Defenders plotted 80 attempted apprehensions, nearly half of which were successful, according to the organisation. It identified targets in dozens of nations, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Family harassment has been regularly reported within the Uyghur diaspora, particularly among those who are politically active outside of China, campaigning for international action on Xinjiang’s human rights violations.

(With inputs from agencies)

(Image: AP)