HONG KONG • The case of five missing booksellers has taken a twist following the publication of an e-mail which revealed that one key figure in the saga was worried that his associate had been abducted by mainland Chinese agents.
In the e-mail, dated Nov 10, 2015, Lee Bo said he feared Gui Minhai, who had then been missing for 20 days, "was taken by special agents from China for political reasons".
Mr Lee had written the e-mail to Gui's daughter Angela before he himself vanished from Hong Kong the following month, reported South China Morning Post yesterday.
"We last talked to Michael by e-mail on Oct 15 and, after that day, nobody could contact him. He was then staying in his apartment in Thailand. According to words (by Gui's wife), told by the watchman of the building, he left the apartment with several men who claimed to be his friends," Mr Lee wrote in the e-mail, referring to Gui by his English name, Michael.
"(There's) very little we can do to help Michael because we are not his next of kin. I then thought of you, perhaps you can do something, and there are a lot of Michael's friends (who) are ready to help if you need them. Do tell me what you think and what you want us to do."
The content of the e-mail contradicts Mr Lee's story weeks after he disappeared, said the Post in the exclusive article. The new revelation also added to suspicion that recent televised confessions of the missing booksellers were staged.
It was unclear how the Post managed to obtain the e-mail.
In the same month that Mr Gui went missing, three of his associates - Lui Por, Cheung Chi Ping and Lam Wing Kee - also disappeared while on the mainland. Mr Lui and Mr Cheung have since returned home while Mr Lam is expected to be released soon, according to Hong Kong media. Lee, Lui and Cheung have asked the city's police to stop investigations into their cases.
The disappearance of the five booksellers led to fears that they had been kidnapped by Chinese agents because the publishing house and bookstore they ran specialised in publications critical of the Chinese Communist Party.
But in his first public appearance since vanishing on Dec 30, Mr Lee told Phoenix TV he had crossed the border illegally of his own free will to assist with an investigation involving colleagues at the publishing house Mighty Current.
Mr Gui, in a televised broadcast in January, said that he had surrendered himself to the mainland authorities over a 2004 drink-driving accident in Ningbo, Zhejiang province. The mainland-born Swedish citizen appeared in another broadcast late last month, admitting to smuggling critical political works into the Chinese mainland.
Despite widespread concern in Hong Kong over the case, Chinese officials at the ongoing National People's Congress refused to comment on it.
"The issue could gradually die down. But the public confidence in 'one country two systems' has been greatly affected," Hong Kong legislator Albert Ho was quoted as saying by the Post.