Families of US detainees in China urge Blinken to make them ‘number one’ priority
By Jennifer Hansler and Kylie Atwood, CNN
Harrison Li and Katherine Swidan both worry they may never see their loved ones again.
Kai Li — Harrison Li’s father — and Mark Swidan — Katherine Swidan’s son — are both Americans who have been imprisoned for years in China, and both have been designated by the US State Department as wrongfully detained.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken was expected to visit China in the next few days, where Harrison Li and Katherine Swidan had urged him to make securing their loved ones’ freedom a top priority. That trip has now been postponed in response to the flying of a Chinese spy balloon over US airspace.
“It’s got to be the number one thing,” Swidan told CNN prior to the trip’s postponement.
Harrison Li, whose father has been detained since 2016 and is serving a ten-year prison sentence on espionage charges, told CNN his father is worried about the spread of Covid in his prison amid the surge in China, particularly because he has only received one vaccine shot. Kai Li’s father recently died from complications related to Covid, Harrison Li said before the trip was postponed.
“How many more people is my dad not going to see again? Or God forbid, is my dad going to come home in a box?” he asked. “I just don’t know at this point and given the conditions and the situation in China, it’s actually quite scary.”
“Our government needs to hear that and act urgently before it’s too late,” Harrison Li told CNN.
Harrison Li said he and the other families have “learned to keep our expectations as low as possible because not to do that will inevitably lead to disappointment,” he said. But they at least want Blinken to raise the names of their family members and push for their release.
“The US government needs to be prepared to make a fair and reasonable offer and negotiate for the release of these Americans being wrongfully held just like they have with the Americans being held in other countries,” Harrison Li said.
A US senior administration official told CNN that the cases of the wrongful detainees — including Mark Swidan, Kai Li, and David Lin — are front and center as Blinken prepares for his trip to Beijing.
The administration knows that the Chinese are likely looking to “extract a price” from the US on the matter, the official said, adding that the administration is willing to pay “steep prices” to get Americans home, the senior administration official said. However, there do not appear to be active negotiations underway to come to an agreement.
A State Department spokesperson would not say if Blinken will raise the cases by name, telling CNN, “We will not preview the details of sensitive diplomatic conversations, but in any country where US nationals are wrongfully detained, we raise those cases at every opportunity.”
“Secretary Blinken affirmed that he is personally focused on and prioritizes bringing home US nationals wrongfully detained in the PRC,” the spokesperson said. “We will continue to advocate on behalf of wrongfully detained US citizens in the PRC and work to support their families. Officials at every level of this administration continually advocate for the release of US citizens wrongfully detained in the PRC.”
Meanwhile, Katherine Swidan said she hasn’t seen her son’s face since he was detained in 2012 on drug-related charges. Instead, Mark has spent more than a decade detained in what his mother describes as a “holding tank,” where she says he has undergone physical and psychological torture and has attempted suicide.
He was sentenced to death in 2019. A UN working group has determined that his detention is arbitrary and called for his immediate release.
“He’s been in there for 10 years, where they never turn the lights off, so as a result, he’s going blind. He’s got fractures in his leg,” she said, telling CNN that guards at the facility “broke his hands five to seven times.”
“He’s suffering and he’s got an infection. He has severe periodontal disease. He has holes in his mouth that bleed constantly. He’s lost 130 pounds. And there is no indication that they’re going to allow a visit” by any US officials, Katherine Swidan said.
She told CNN that her son has sent letters describing the horrors he has seen, and in one of his most recent letters he told his mother, “I will come home in the box of ashes or I will come home on a plane walking off to you but I will come home.”
“As a mom, it kills me a little bit every day,” Katherine Swidan said. “I’m a perfect example of how your heart can actually break in little pieces every single day.”
“I refuse to accept that the most powerful country on Earth cannot get Mark home,” she added.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct Kai Li’s vaccine status.
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