An Australian activist has been arrested and detained in London just 20 minutes into a protest outside the Chinese embassy after authorities alleged he had emailed a bomb threat.
Drew Pavlou, a 23-year-old Australian activist who has been critical of China’s human rights record, held a small protest outside the embassy, displaying a number of flags.
They included those of Tibet, Taiwan, and the Kökbayraq, a flag used to represent the Uyghur inhabitants of Xinjiang.
He had intended to glue the flags to the gates outside of the embassy, a similar tactic that groups like Extinction Rebellion have adopted in recent years.
Twenty minutes into his protest, however, police arrived and arrested him, with officers alleging that Pavlou had earlier emailed a bomb threat to the embassy.
Speaking to the ABC, Pavlou said he believed the case was unfounded and due to misdirection. He denied all allegations against him.
“There’s very clearly someone who’s just impersonating me, sending out these terrible emails, and I’ve spent 23 hours in a cell because of it,” he said.
While in custody, Pavlou alleged that UK police told him he would be unable to contact anyone as they continued their investigation.
“You can’t speak to a lawyer. You can’t ring anyone. You can’t talk to anyone. You can’t tell them what’s happened to you,” he said.
“I was obviously just really frightened. I didn’t know what I could do.”
He said he was roughly handcuffed in what he called a stress position by arresting officers, and was detained for hours before being told of the charges against him.
“I said, ‘what? What do you mean?’ And then it suddenly made sense why I was being handcuffed so harshly and being basically treated so poorly,” he said.
Pavlou said officers informed him the Chinese embassy had made a report against him, citing an email they received with his name “all over it” which threatened a bomb attack.
“I was just shocked… I thought someone was taking the piss,” he said.
Allegedly denied consular access
A spokesperson for London’s Metropolitan Police said while they could not confirm the identity of “any person arrested but not charged”, a man was arrested “due to his suspicious behaviour” after staff at the Chinese embassy in London alerted police to an emailed bomb threat.
“He was found to be in possession of a quantity of glue and had attempted to glue his hand to the outside of the embassy building,” the spokesperson said.
“The man was arrested on suspicion of trespass on diplomatic premises, communicating false information to make a bomb hoax and criminal damage.”
The spokesperson said he was “offered legal advice and a duty solicitor was called”.
“He has been bailed to return pending further enquiries.”
Sitting in a cell by himself, with no one knowing his whereabouts, Pavlou said officers told him they would be searching his UK residence and his laptop.
He requested a lawyer, but said it wasn’t until midnight that he was allowed to call anyone.
By that point, all of his contacts were asleep.
“I said please put me through to the Australian consular authorities,” Pavlou said.
“[The officers] were like, oh, sorry, the consulate’s closed. They’re all asleep.”
Pavlou said the reason officers gave for denying him outside contact was to ensure he couldn’t ask anyone to destroy evidence, although he believes that police were purposefully putting him in a stressful situation.
By midnight, he said he had yet to even see the email in question. After having spent nearly 10 hours in custody, and with no outside contact, he said he requested officers conduct an interview so that he could see the email.
Pavlou alleges that officers made him sign a document, waiving his right to legal representation.
He said officers agreed to conduct an interview at around 1am, but nothing happened until 2am, at which point he said he fell asleep, only to be awoken close to 4am to do the interview.
“I said, can we do it later? I’ve changed my mind. I’m tired. It’s 4am. And then they said ‘no, it has to be now’. I was just absolutely exhausted.
“That’s when they said this is a seven year prison sentence.”
Pavlou said officers began by asking him who he was and why he was in the UK, his reasons for going to the Chinese embassy.
They also posed questions about how he sends emails, and if he had any mental health conditions.
He tried to explain his history of activism to the officers, though said they weren’t convinced.
“I was just begging them to believe me,” he said.
Emails sent to lawyers and politicians
Pavlou said officers requested the PIN for his cell phone which had been seized, and that if he didn’t comply, he could have faced an additional five years for obstructing justice.
He was eventually released but said UK authorities advised him against leaving the country, despite not being formally charged with anything. Officers returned his passport, he said, but not his cell phone.
The embassy was not the only recipient of emails appearing to be sent by Pavlou.
Thousands of faces revealed in Xinjiang Police Files
The source of the files claims to have hacked and downloaded the documents from several police computer servers in China’s far-western region of Xinjiang, before decrypting and leaking them.
Caoilfhionn Gallagher, a prominent human rights lawyer in the UK, received an email purporting to be from Pavlou, as did two of her colleagues.
Australian Senator James Patterson also received an email, as did UK human rights campaigner Luke de Pulford, from a sender saying they were Pavlou asking for help with an arrest and assault charge.
A spokesperson from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) told the ABC that DFAT has offered consular assistance to Pavlou, and that officials from Australia’s High Commission in London would raise Pavlou’s claim that he was denied consular access before being released with UK authorities.
Alan Crockford, spokesman for the Metropolitan Police, refused to confirm that Pavlou had been arrested, but added that “strict codes of practice under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act” are upheld when people are detained.
“Anyone who wishes to complain about their treatment by the Metropolitan Police can contact the Met’s Directorate of Professional Standards or the UK Independent Office for Police Conduct,” Crockford wrote in an email to the ABC.
In a subsequent email, Crockford confirmed that a man had been detained at the Chinese embassy “due to his suspicious behaviour”, without naming Pavlou.
“He was found to be in possession of a quantity of glue and had attempted to glue his hand to the outside of the embassy building.
“The man was arrested on suspicion of trespass on diplomatic premises, communicating false information to make a bomb hoax and criminal damage,” Crockford said, adding that the offering of legal advice was recorded in the man’s custody record.
“He has been bailed to return pending further enquiries (sic).”
The ABC has also reached out to the Chinese embassy in the UK for comment.
Pavlou has retained legal counsel in the UK.
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