Chen Taihe describes being held in a jail cell so crowded he couldn’t relieve himself.
And Peter Dahlin was left so traumatized by his experience, he slept with a knife next to his bed.
Three men, in three different parts of China. They didn’t know each other, but all had one thing in common: They advocated for human rights and became caught up in what activists say is the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown on dissent.
Rights groups say President Xi Jinping’s wide-reaching sweep on perceived threats to both his rule and the Chinese Communist Party has led to the arrests of dozens of activists, bloggers, feminists, artists and lawyers.
The men, who CNN spoke to in detail over the course of the last 12 months, describe being forcibly taken from their homes, detained for weeks, sometimes months, in secret prisons, denied communication with family and legal representation, strong-armed into making videotaped confessions, and ultimately released without being convicted of a single crime.
Sui, Chen and Dahlin all say they were explicitly told not to talk about what happened to them, but have decided to speak out anyway. They say they want to shed light on the lengths to which China’s government will go to silence anyone it deems a threat.
CNN reached out to the Chinese government for comment on each of the cases in this story, but received no response. Beijing has said regularly in the past that it does not torture prisoners and maintains these lawyers and activists are criminals dealt with under the law.
The 709 crackdown
While being a human rights lawyer has never been an easy path in Communist China, forced disappearances of lawyers were rare before 2015.
But on July 9 of that year, prominent Beijing rights lawyer Wang Yu disappeared, along with her husband, also a lawyer, and their teenage son.
The following day, police raided Wang’s law firm and detained seven of her colleagues. Seven other rights lawyers were also detained or reported missing, according to the Hong-Kong based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, which has meticulously documented the cases. It became known as the “709 crackdown” — a reference to the date the first arrests occurred.
Sui was among them. He’d earlier in the day spoken to two foreign media outlets to raise concern about Wang’s disappearance.
That night, a security guard called up to Sui’s apartment and said his car had been scratched in an accident and when he stepped outside, a group of police quickly whisked him away, said Sui. He wasn’t seen again for nearly five months.
Two days later, on July 12, the same thing happened to Chen. He said police asked him to come down from his apartment to answer a few questions. “I intentionally left my cell phone upstairs in my apartment because I thought I’d be back in a few minutes.” He didn’t return for six weeks.
Dahlin, a Swedish national who co-founded a Beijing-based NGO that provided legal aid and training to Chinese lawyers, wasn’t caught up in the first wave of detentions, and assumed his status as a foreigner might offer him some protection.
In early January 2016, however, he got tipped off authorities might be after him. He was about to depart for Beijing airport when 20 police officers turned up at his apartment.
They detained him and his girlfriend and they ransacked his home, he says, seizing computers and documents.
Dahlin says he was accused of masterminding a plan to smuggle the son of Wang Yu, the first lawyer to be detained in the swoop, into Myanmar, in an effort to evade authorities in October 2015.
He said investigators realized early on he had nothing to do with it, but instead of letting him go, quickly turned their attention to his NGO — Chinese Urgent Action Working Group — pressing him to give up information about his colleagues and other activists his group worked with.
How lawyers disappear
The amended law says residential surveillance shouldn’t exceed six months but requires detainees’ families be notified within 24 hours, unless they can’t be reached, and guarantees all suspects the right to a lawyer, with whom a meeting should be granted within 48 hours of a request.
Although they were held at opposite ends of the country, Sui, Chen and Dahlin all describe similar conditions: Sparsely furnished rooms with black-out curtains on the windows and fluorescent lights kept on 24-hours a day.
They say they slept on a single bed, and were not allowed any reading or writing materials. Guards were always in the room watching their every move, even when they used the bathroom.
“There’s nothing to look at except some very beige-looking suicide padding on the wall,” said Dahlin.
He described being so bored he almost looked forward to the daily interrogations, “because at least you’re taken out to another room … and have some kind of interaction with people.”
The interrogators used methods which Dahlin said reminded him of “bad American movies.”
“They would have lots of people rush into your cell at night surrounding your bed just trying to scare you,” he said.
Just months earlier, Sui says he was held at a police training facility in Guangzhou, the free-wheeling hub of China’s manufacturing heartland where he worked as a human rights lawyer defending a number of high-profile activists.
He says interrogators accused him of inciting subversion and pressed him to give them details ranging from his personal life and finances, to his work, clients, and all of his contacts.
Initially he refused to answer the questions, but his resistance only made his interrogators push harder. “They wouldn’t let me sleep for four days and nights. By the fifth day, I felt like I was going to die,” he said.
Sui said it was the sleep deprivation plus threats of torture which ultimately broke his will and made him cooperate. He said investigators threatened to shackle his hands, hang him from the ceiling and shine a flashlight directly into his eyes.
“I knew someone who had a heart attack due to deprivation of sleep in jail, so I was a bit frightened my life could be at risk if I continued to fight back,” he said.
Chen, a professor who advocated for a US-style jury system in China on his blog, was first accused of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” — a vague charge often used by Chinese authorities that can carry a 10-year prison sentence. He told CNN he refused to admit any wrongdoing during a 20-hour interrogation, but then found himself sharing a jail cell with inmates accused of crimes ranging from petty theft to murder.
“The cell was so crammed I had to ask other prisoners to make room so I could urinate and defecate,” he said. “I didn’t have a spoon or chopsticks to eat with. We’d get one scoop of rice and would have to eat it with our hands.”
After a month, Chen said he was told to collect his belongings. He thought he was going home — but instead was driven to what appeared to be an abandoned hotel and held for another 10 days.
Earlier this year, CNN visited the nondescript building where Chen said he was held in Guilin, a southern city famed for its stunning landscape of karst mountains. Signs posted around the area in Chinese and English marked it as military property, but it otherwise appeared open and accessible.
Local officials denied that the building was used as a secret detention center.
‘You have to confess’
The rights activists held captive weren’t just concerned about their own well being. They say their loved ones were also threatened.
Dahlin’s interrogators made it clear that they’d keep his girlfriend, a Chinese national, in custody for as long as it took to resolve his case.
“She was taken hostage just to put pressure on me,” he said. Dahlin asked about his girlfriend every day but got limited answers.
“They said she was being treated quite well. That she was being given yoghurt and fruit and things like that. She was allowed to make a few drawings and do yoga in her room,” he said. “They knew she had nothing to give them.”
He said he knew what authorities were really going to do with it. But wanting to speed up his release — and that of his girlfriend — Dahlin agreed to play his part.
He was taken into a room where a woman from state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) was sitting with a cameraman. Dahlin was handed a piece of paper with the questions that she would ask and the answers he would give.
“I have caused harm to the Chinese government. I have hurt the feelings of the Chinese people. I apologize sincerely for this,” Dahlin said in the confession broadcast nationwide and splashed across state-run newspapers.
Immediately after its broadcast activists denounced it as a forced confession — one of many that have been shown on CCTV in the years since Xi came to power.
Sui and Chen said they had to make similar “confessions.” All three men now maintain their innocence, but they said they had no choice but to do as authorities wanted.
Sui says he admitted to charges of inciting subversion. Chen told CNN he confessed to charges of picking quarrels and provoking troubles, inciting subversion and embezzlement.
“You have to confess,” Chen said. “Otherwise they won’t let you go.”