All extraditions to China from Europe could be blocked after a recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), in a judgment that campaigners described as a landmark decision with global ramifications.
Judges at the court in Strasbourg, France, unanimously ruled October 6 that Hung Tao Liu, a Taiwan national accused of telecoms fraud, should not be extradited from Poland to China as he could face ill-treatment or torture and may not have access to a fair trial.
The judges also ruled that Liu's five-year detention in Poland while he appealed the extradition request was unlawful. The judgment is due to come into effect in January.
Crucially, Liu is neither a political activist nor critic of China, nor is he from a religious or ethnic minority, explained his Polish lawyer Marcin Gorski, a legal scholar at the University of Lodz.
"So, the outcome of the case is that basically, regardless of your personal status — whether you are a political activist involved in some sort of opposition activities in China or not — you must not be extradited to China, basically because any person being [sent] there is likely to be subject to ill-treatment," Gorski told VOA.
Hung Tao Liu fled to Poland from Spain in 2016, after Spanish authorities arrested and extradited more than 200 suspects of Taiwanese origin to mainland China on accusations of telecoms fraud. Liu allegedly was the group's ringleader.
Human rights groups accused Spain of ignoring warnings of ill-treatment and torture in China's judicial system. "The Spanish government knew about the situation in China," Jing-Jie Chen of the Madrid-based human rights group Safeguard Defenders told VOA.
"What the Chinese government tried to say is that we are going to have this diplomatic assurance, we're going to ensure fair trials, we're going to ensure that there won't be any capital punishment or life imprisonment, so then it's OK for you to send those people over here.
"This [ECHR] judgment also clearly says that it doesn't really matter about these kind[s] of diplomatic assurances," Chen said.
Liu was detained in Poland in 2017 after Interpol issued a "red notice" based on a request from Beijing authorities. Polish judges approved his extradition to China, a ruling later upheld by Poland's Supreme Court in 2018. Liu then applied to the European Court of Human Rights, whose rulings take precedent over domestic courts.
Poland can appeal the ECHR verdict, but legal experts say it is unlikely to be overturned as the ruling was unanimous.
Forty-six countries are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights, overseen by the ECHR in Strasbourg. Nations that are not signatories to the convention will also take note of the recent ruling, said lawyer Gorski.
"The judgment is likely to have an impact on the proceedings in these kind of cases going on worldwide. And we actually have a very good feedback of this judgment from also the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand," he told VOA.
The ruling could also impact relations between Europe and China.
"For instance, the impact of this decision on the ongoing process of negotiations and ratification of the trade deals with China now," Gorski said.
China consistently rejects claims that it violates human rights and says the right to a fair trial is enshrined in law. Human rights campaigners say China does not grant international oversight of its judicial system and that torture, forced confessions and executions are common.