The Swiss government has strongly rejected accusations that an agreement allowing Chinese officials to enter Switzerland and question Chinese nationals would endanger dissidents.
Switzerland concluded a so-called readmission agreement with China in 2015. The agreement expired on Monday.
The agreement, which remained secret until Swiss newspaper NZZ disclosed its existence in August, specified conditions under which Chinese authorities were to visit the country and interview Chinese nationals to be deported.
Asia’s rights group Safeguard Defenders this week released the text of the deal, along with a report on how it differed from similar deals with other countries, and could pose a threat for “those whom the Chinese government wants to be fired”.
The details revealed “will tarnish Switzerland’s reputation,” Peter Dahlin, who heads the organization, told AFP.
Following the initial disclosure of the deal in August, Hong Kong dissident Joshua Wong, who has since been jailed, took to Twitter to denounce the secret nature of the deal.
“Five years after signing the secret agreement, no Swiss MP has ever heard of the agreement,” he tweeted on August 24, warning that “dissidents in exile” from Hong Kong, from Taiwan and elsewhere were in danger of being extradited to China.
The Swiss Migration Ministry, meanwhile, categorically denied that there was anything secret about the deal with China, insisting that it was a standard “technical arrangement” like those he had concluded with some sixty other countries.
Although the deal has never been publicly released like many of these deals, it “can be obtained on request at any time,” he said in a statement.
Ministry spokesman Reto Kormann also told AFP in an email that people considered at risk, such as Uyghur Muslims or Tibetans, would not be considered deported and “would not be questioned by Chinese officials ”.
He explained that readmission agreements were necessary because “most states are only willing to take back their own citizens if they can verify their identity.”
“Therefore, such interviews are common practice in Switzerland as in other European states.”
The agreement with China has only been used once in the past five years, in 2016, the ministry said.
During this mission, “two Chinese officials stayed in Switzerland for several days to interview a total of 13 people,” he said.
The Swiss Migration Ministry had planned to renew the agreement before it expired on December 7.
But he said he was not worried that it had expired, pointing out that it was possible to invite foreign delegations even without it.
After the deal was revealed in August, left-wing parties called for more oversight, and the issue will now be discussed by parliament in the coming months.
After that, ministry spokesman Daniel Bach told AFP, discussions with Chinese authorities on restoring the deal would begin.
“It is in Switzerland’s interest to renew this agreement,” he said.
The Safeguard Defenders report argued that Switzerland’s deal with China was nothing like its deals with other countries.
The report compared Switzerland’s deal with China to that with Sweden, India, Hong Kong and Britain, and found glaring differences.
“It differs so much,” Dahlin said, that comparing it to typical readmission agreements “is in itself misleading.”
While such agreements are usually made with immigration services or foreign ministries, the agreement with China was made with its Ministry of Public Security, which deals with immigration, but also police and intelligence matters.
The Chinese “experts” sent are not immigration bureaucrats, but “agents,” Dahlin said, adding that the agreement allows them to “move freely, conduct interviews and interrogations without surveillance.”
Hua Chunying, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told AFP that criticism of his agreement with Switzerland was based on “a misinterpretation of the facts”.
“Other European countries are engaging in similar cooperation with China,” she said.