WHEN 20 police stormed Peter Dahlin’s Beijing flat in the dead of night, it came as little surprise.
Branded a dissident by the state, the activist knew there was a target on his back, but nothing quite prepared him for his stay in one of China’s so-called ‘black jails’.
For 23 days, Peter was confined to a “suicide-padded” cell with just two silent guards for company, watching his every move.
He was deprived of sleep, access to his embassy, the right to exercise or even to sunlight.
His only source of relief from his own thoughts was exhausting late-night interrogation sessions – between six and 12 hours long – and lie detector tests.
In an interview with The Sun, Peter – now director of the human rights NGO Safeguard Defenders – explains: “You go between these two extremes. Either you’re super bored, or you’re completely on edge because you go through these interrogations.”
The 41-year-old is one of tens of thousands of people with a similar story, ever since 2013, when Xi Jinping became president of China, and a custodial system was introduced that gave police the powers to ‘disappear’ anyone into a secret facility.
Denied all contact with the outside world, they can be interrogated at will, for a total of up to six months – with officers given virtually free reign to coerce confessions from, torture, threaten and mistreat victims.
Ahead of the Winter Olympics – which begins this Friday – China has been determined to crush any sign of dissent. Officials have warned that even foreign athletes who make political statements would be subject to “certain punishment”.
Here, Peter reveals what really goes on inside the mysterious jails – and how they’re still in operation today.
Bundled into car with suffocating hood
In the early hours of Monday 4 January, 2016, 20 police officers stormed Peter’s flat in Beijing with three cameras “shining really bright lights” and took him and his girlfriend.
Peter – the director of an NGO at the time who’d been working with Chinese lawyers, who were also taken – had his phones and laptops confiscated.
They were bundled into a car with a suffocating black hood placed over their heads, and not told anything.
“My embassy didn’t know where I was, and my family didn’t know where I was. No one had a clue,” recalls Peter.
Life in the black jails – formally known as RSDLs, meaning Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location – is at best defined by isolation, boredom and fear.
The only company for Peter – and everyone else who’s been in the jails – was the two guards assigned to watch him 24 hours a day, even when he went to the toilet.
“The most extreme part about it is that half the time you spend inside your cell” says Peter. “There is nothing to do so, basically your brain just goes apes*** crazy.”
With many prisoners routinely humiliated and tortured, some have reported having suicidal thoughts.
However, the cells are specifically designed to ensure this is not an option – with even the toilets “suicide padded”.
Guards stop inmates sleeping & hand out ‘bug-ridden’ rice
Often, there’s no way of even sleeping for the inmates.
Peter recalls up to 10 guards would “rush in in the middle of the night, stand around me and try to scare me, just to keep me awake”.
He adds: “Sometimes I wouldn’t be allowed to sleep at all, and then after 24/48 hours, they would haul me into these interrogations where you haven’t slept for a very long time.”
But, despite this horrendous treatment, Peter believes that, as a Swedish-born white man, he was treated kindly in comparison to the horror stories he’s heard from others.
Many of his Chinese counterparts were deprived of food, given reduced rations and water, and denied medical treatment.
Even American Jeff Harper has said, while he was in the RSDL prison, he lost almost three stone in weight due to eating rice “every day – sometimes with bugs in it”.
The professional basketball player had been detained after intervening in a violent fight between a couple, which the state informed him had led to the man lapsing into a coma and dying.
Peter was regularly given “watery noodles you’d expect from a prison”. Following two weeks of press coverage about his disappearance, his treatment was slightly improved – occasionally being offered a piece of fruit.
Sexual harassment and humilation
When it comes to torture techniques, some people are forced to sit on a dangling stool to ensure their feet don’t reach the floor, so their entire weight is carried by their buttocks and lower back.
They are ordered not to move for up to 16 hours, leaving them unable to walk.
And many females are likely to be sexually harassed and humiliated.
Human rights activist Li Qiaochu has said: “I was not allowed to wear underwear, and whenever I was confronted by male interrogators I would always subconsciously make sure that my clothes were not clinging to my body.
“Officer Li would occasionally say things that were sexually humiliating.”
“I was really lucky,” says Peter. “My treatment was frankly very good in comparison.
“Not to say that it was nice because it was pretty horrible, but compared to other people, my treatment was just fantastic.”
PTSD and anxiety attacks
Peter was expecting to be in the jail for six months, knowing that many of his Chinese counterparts had been.
But he was released after 23 days after being forced to record a video admitting he had violated Chinese law.
Peter tells us he struggled with “a lot of mental health issues” after his time in the RSDL, suffering with panic attacks, anxiety and sleep problems.
In fact, he believes that he still has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to this day.
“Every time I go to sleep, I wonder, ‘Is someone going to come for me?’ This is what I deal with every night,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.”
After their terrifying ordeal, Peter and his girlfriend moved to Thailand, and then Europe two years later as they felt safer there.
He is now the director of Safeguard Defenders, working to ensure China doesn’t continue with their RSDL prisons.
But, with tennis player Peng Shuai recently going missing, he says “secret prisons are becoming way more common,” and he’s worried the tactic will spread to the likes of Vietnam, Thailand and Burma.
He adds: “We are seeing people dying inside. We are seeing people whose bodies are horribly deformed, basically, with no explanation.