Peter Dahlin has been released. To give confident answers about the meaning of his case we need to know much more. First, what triggered Dahlin’s detention? Did he have anything to do with the effort to smuggle Wang Yu’s son out of China, as once rumored, or was this a smear to make the detention look more understandable and not so threatening to foreign and local legal aid and training personnel? Was it the hiring of local lawyers to conduct public interest litigation instead of the mere training of lawyers generally, as many of us do? Was it (the activity of) the particular activist lawyers helped by him?
Until we hear from Dahlin it will be hard to interpret the case’s significance. Will we hear an informative response from him and when? Did his girlfriend accompany him to Sweden? Otherwise she remains a hostage to his freedom to speak. In earlier years she might well have been given “reeducation through labor” even after her foreign lover was allowed to leave.
How to evaluate the case at this point? Dahlin’s treatment undoubtedly reflects his own cooperation while in detention. What if he had refused to go on TV? What if he had remained silent and uncooperative? What if he had lashed out against his detention and captors as his colleague, who is free, did in defense of his conduct and their organization? Any such failure to show contrition and confession would have delayed his release despite the efforts of the Swedish Government. He might even then have subsequently been released after indictment, trial, conviction and a harsh sentence. I have advised in cases where, for instance, because of diplomatic pressure, the defendant was released 48 hours after receiving a ten-year sentence, the ostensible, pre-agreed excuse being the need for foreign medical treatment.
I can see why the PRC released him now. The authorities made their point, spreading intimidation and fear throughout both the domestic and foreign legal and NGO worlds. Now, having been widely condemned internally as well as externally, they ease the criticism by releasing the accused after what appears to be a reasonable, if secret, bargain. This is similar to the release of rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang after a prosecution that shocked many and occasioned strong protests, yet ended in an apparently less harsh than expected outcome after a complex negotiation. Unfortunately, most PRC rights advocates are not protected by the fame and connections of lawyer Pu or artist-activist Ai Weiwei or by the pressures of a foreign, friendly government. For them, shock, awe and prison remain the order of the era!