Departing from the apparent script devised by the Chinese government, one of the five Hong Kong booksellers detained on the mainland for "illegal" trading of books held an unexpected press conference in Hong Kong last night, describing an eight-month ordeal that included "rehearsed" confessions.
Most damagingly, Mr Lam Wing Kee, 61, said his colleague Lee Bo had told him he was taken against his will from Hong Kong in December. If true, this confirms long-held suspicions that mainland agents were operating in the city, in a breach of the "one country, two systems" framework.
Mr Lam also said a televised "confession" by the five men on Phoenix TV was orchestrated, "with a director and a script which we had to memorise and rehearse".
The revelations are bound to exacerbate the deep mistrust between Hong Kong and the central government. Many Hong Kongers are already calling for Mr Lam's protection and for people to march in protest over the authorities' actions.
"Hong Kong's conscience!" wrote news site editor Zhang Jieping on Facebook.
NEED TO SPEAK OUT
I am only a bookseller and this can happen to me. It can happen to anyone in future. If I don't speak out, there will be no hope for Hong Kong's future.
MR LAM WING KEE, one of the five Hong Kong booksellers detained on the mainland.
I felt like I lost my freedom, I was alone and helpless.
MR LAM, on his ordeal. He said he was kept in a room in Ningbo for five months, and was not allowed to get in touch with lawyers or family.
The booksellers associated with the Mighty Current publisher and Causeway Bay Bookstore, which published and sold gossipy political tracts on China's leaders, disappeared last year.
In particular, the disappearance of Mr Lee, who also holds a British passport, aroused much concern as he appeared to have been spirited away from the city without his official travel documents.
In a statement late last night, the Hong Kong government said the police have gotten in touch with Mr Lam to follow up on his claims. It stressed that under the Basic Law, no other law enforcement entities - foreign or mainland - can operate in Hong Kong.
The other men went missing on the mainland and in Phuket. All five resurfaced in televised confessions. While four of them confessed to trading in unauthorised books, one, Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, said he turned himself in due to a fatal drink driving accident .
Three of the men released earlier were tight-lipped about how they were detained, with Mr Lee maintaining he had travelled to the mainland of his own volition.
When Mr Lam was released on Tuesday, he was expected to have stuck to the same story. He had cancelled a "missing person" police report lodged by his family.
Instead, he said last night: "I am only a bookseller and this can happen to me. It can happen to anyone in future. If I don't speak out, there will be no hope for Hong Kong's future."
At times tearful, Mr Lam, who was accompanied by Democratic Party lawmaker Albert Ho, recounted how he was arrested near the Customs checkpoint in Shenzhen on Oct 24. He said the officers were from a "central government special investigative task force".
He was put on a train to Ningbo, south of Shanghai. For five months, he was kept in a room and unable to communicate with anyone. "I felt like I lost my freedom, I was alone and helpless."
He was supposed to return to the mainland yesterday with a hard disc containing data on the shop's customers, so as to secure his release. But Mr Lam said: "I don't dare to return."
He said he did not sleep the past two nights, trying to decide if he should speak out "and tell the world what happened".
"I decided to summon my courage to do so," he said. He said he has a girlfriend on the mainland, and acknowledged that he could be placing her at risk. "But this is no longer about me or Causeway Bay Bookstore, but about the bottom line of what Hong Kong can accept."