A former Swedish ambassador to China went on trial on Friday in Stockholm, charged with overstepping the boundaries of her role by arranging what prosecutors said were secret back-room meetings over the fate of a detained Hong Kong bookseller who is a Swedish citizen.
The charges against the diplomat, Anna Lindstedt, relate to meetings she arranged without government approval at a Stockholm hotel in January 2019, between the daughter of the bookseller, Gui Minhai, and two businessmen who prosecutors say were representing Chinese state interests. The daughter has described the experience as “threatening,” and Sweden’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs later said it had no knowledge of the meetings.
Ms. Lindstedt is charged with “arbitrariness during negotiations with a foreign power,” an indictment that Hans Ihrman, the deputy chief public prosecutor at the national security unit, called “unprecedented in modern times.”
Ms. Lindstedt had denied the charge, and did not want to make any statements outside court proceedings, according to Swedish public radio. Her trial is expected to run for eight days.
Mr. Gui was one of five Hong Kong booksellers arrested by the Chinese authorities as they attempted to crack down on dissent in the Chinese territory and abroad. He was spirited way to China from Thailand in 2015 while at his vacation home, and accused by Chinese state news media outlets of publishing books that slurred Communist Party leaders.
Months after he vanished, he appeared on Chinese state television and confessed to a deadly, drunken car crash more than a decade earlier. After two years in detention, he was released but was forced to remain in China. In 2018, he disappeared again in dramatic fashion — snatched from a train bound for Beijing while accompanied by two Swedish diplomats. Earlier this year, the Chinese authorities said he had been sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of providing intelligence overseas.
His family has had no news about him since February, and his case has strained relations between Sweden and China ever since.
Mr. Gui’s daughter, Angela Gui, has long been a vocal advocate for her father’s release. On Friday, reached by phone, she declined to comment further on the case. But she wrote on her blog in February 2019 about what she described as a “strange experience in Stockholm” the previous month.
Ms. Gui detailed what she said were a series of meetings with her, Ms. Lindstedt and the two businessmen who said they could help secure her father’s release from prison. The men instead pressured Ms. Gui to remain silent about her father’s case, according to her account.
“As I left Stockholm, I wondered how much of this the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs was really aware of,” she wrote. “Nothing at all, it turns out.”
Ms. Gui said that when she called officials at the ministry the following week, “they told me they hadn’t had the slightest idea this whole affair was taking place” and hadn’t been informed that Ms. Lindstedt was back in Sweden.
When Ms. Lindstedt was charged in December 2019, Mr. Ihrman, the deputy chief public prosecutor, said in a statement that the former ambassador must adhere to “guidelines and instructions” from the government and had “exceeded her mandate and has therefore rendered herself criminally liable.”
Her defense has said that the businessmen had acted on their own behalf, had represented only their own interests and had aimed to do business with Sweden. But the prosecutor, Henrik Olin, told Swedish public radio that this did not rule out that the men had also been representing the interests of the Chinese state.
“We believe that their behavior and actions are completely in line with China’s interest,” Mr. Olin said.
The charges against Ms. Lindstedt could bring a maximum prison sentence of two years under the Swedish Penal Code if she is convicted.
Mr. Gui’s own case remains unresolved. When he was sentenced in February, the court in Ningbo, a city in eastern China, did not provide details about the accusations against him beyond a brief notice saying he had “undermined China’s national security and interests.”
The national government in Beijing often uses such accusations to target critics of the ruling Communist Party, and human rights activists said there was no evidence to indicate that Mr. Gui had broken the law.
Doriane Lau, a China researcher for Amnesty International, called the accusations against Mr. Gui “farcical, not to mention completely unsubstantiated.” She said the 10-year sentence was “deeply unjust” given Mr. Gui’s health issues, which include a neurological disorder. “The Chinese authorities must end their persecution of Gui Minhai and release him immediately and unconditionally,” she said.
The Chinese government has repeatedly argued that Mr. Gui is a Chinese citizen, saying that he applied to restore his citizenship in 2018 and implying that he would give up his Swedish citizenship.
“This case is no longer a topic between China and Sweden,” a spokesman for China’s embassy in Sweden said in February.