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Kenya Faces Lawsuit From Taiwan Over Release Of Prisoners To China


A diplomatic battle among Kenya, Taiwan and China led to a bizarre scene in a Kenyan prison this week.



SIEGEL: A video posted online shows about a dozen Taiwanese nationals in a prison cell in Kenya. And they're using their collective bodyweight to keep the door shut and stay inside their cell.


SIEGEL: The prisoners had actually been acquitted in a Kenyan court. But instead of releasing the Taiwanese prisoners, the Kenyan government handed them over to China. And China doesn't recognize the Taiwanese government. Well, now Taiwanese authorities say that they will sue Kenyan police for what they call illegal abductions. And for more on this story I'm joined now by NPR's Gregory Warner in Nairobi. Hi, Gregory.


SIEGEL: And let's start with how these Taiwanese nationals got in that Kenyan jail cell in the first place.

WARNER: Well, the said journey really began in 2014. And at that time Kenyan police were responding to a building fire in a slum area of Nairobi. They happened to discover a room of fancy computer equipment. And the Kenyans at that time were very worried about cybercrime. They arrested the men that they found there on charges of hacking into Kenyan banks, which was a bit ludicrous. They were acquitted on those charges.

However, instead of being released, they were handed over to Chinese authorities who then put them on a plane to Beijing. Now, Beijing says it's going to try these men with a different crime - telephone fraud. And these are these phone scams that a lot of Chinese citizens in China complain about and that con millions of dollars from ordinary Chinese.

SIEGEL: Now, Taiwan says this violates international law and the rights of its citizens. And Taiwan is planning a lawsuit against the Kenyan police. What is the Kenyan response to that?

WARNER: Well, this is actually not the first time this has happened where accused Taiwanese criminals arrested in a third country are deported to China. And Kenya's response is simply, Kenya has no official relations with Taiwan. It does not recognize the existence of Taiwan. And it has a very cozy, very lucrative relationship with China, which has financed billions of dollars of development projects. So Kenya falling in with Beijing's wishes is not really a surprise here.

What is worth noting though is the way that China and the language that China has used to defend itself - or in this case not really defend itself. The Chinese authorities could have taken a very different tact to this whole thing. It said, look, this is a matter of national security. These Taiwanese were allegedly committing phone scams against Chinese nationals. Phone scams are a big problem. China did not do that.

Instead China reiterated their One-China policy that Taiwan does not exist. And the spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry even issued a kind of threat. He said that the One-China policy is an important precondition for bilateral relations with China and other countries. So he really seems that they're drawing a line in the sand, sending a message to these African countries that you're either with us or you're against us.

SIEGEL: Yeah, you mentioned Kenya's lucrative relationship with China. China has deepened its relationship with African countries over the past few years, recently announcing that the first Chinese overseas military base would be in Africa. Is this a sign that China's playing hardball and using African countries - in this case Kenya - as its allies?

WARNER: It certainly wants to. And there's no doubt that China wants to send a very strong message to Taiwan and specifically to Taiwan's new president, Tsai Ing-wen, who was elected this year. And she was elected with a mandate to stand up more to China, to be less accommodating, less cooperative. So China wants to flex its muscle. I think the question though is what happens next time when it's not an alleged Taiwanese con artist that's being picked up but a Taiwanese blogger or a perceived Taiwanese activist or even a Taiwanese businessperson? Because this is a time when Taiwan has expressed the desire to do more business with Africa. Can China, because of its presence there, essentially block that whole relationship?

SIEGEL: That's NPR East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner in Nairobi. Greg, thanks.

WARNER: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.