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Former Chinese Spy Seeks Asylum in Toronto Church

Feb 2, 2010
National Post (Canada)
By Stewart Bell



Gankhuyag Bumuutseren sits in his room in the basement of St. James Anglican Church in Etobicoke, where he is seeking sanctuary, Feb. 2, 2010.  

TORONTO -- A man who spied on Chinese dissidents in the United States has been living in a Toronto church since this past August to avoid deportation, the National Post has learned.

Hours before the Canada Border Services Agency was scheduled to deport Gankhuyag Bumuutseren for espionage, he sought sanctuary in St. James Anglican church in Etobicoke.

The 41-year-old Mongolian citizen has inhabited a room in the church basement since then, and while he admitted on Tuesday he had spied for China, he said he is afraid to return to his homeland.

"I feel so sorry and so stupid and I want to apologize and say sorry," he said in an interview translated by his wife. "I was young and I didn't know what I was doing."

The case offers a rare glimpse into how China's vast foreign espionage apparatus monitors exiled dissidents and activists that the communist government views as threats to its rule. It also highlights a related problem facing the Canadian government: what should it do when former members of hostile intelligence agencies turn up in Canada seeking refuge?

Mr. Bumuutseren said he spent eight years spying on exiled Chinese political activists in Mongolia and the United States. Although he was first recruited by the Chinese government, he later became a double agent and spied for the Mongolian government as well. He said that as a result of the information he collected, several Chinese dissidents were forced to flee to Western countries.

"We acknowledge that this man, as a young man, made some dangerous and foolish mistakes," said Rev. Murray Henderson, the church pastor. But he said Mr. Bumuutseren would be in danger in Mongolia and he is now a peaceful family man, regardless of his past.

That past is rife with treachery and deceit in the service of China's intelligence apparatus, which used Mr. Bumuutseren to help suppress a political uprising in the Inner Mongolia region of northern China.

In the 1990s, following a state crackdown on their activities, many Inner Mongolian political activists were living in neighboring Mongolia, a country of three million between China and Russia. Some also fled to the West. It was these exiled activists that Mr. Bumuutseren was paid to monitor.

"At the time, I did not realize what I was getting involved in. If I could only go back in time, I would have never accepted that offer," he wrote in his refugee claim.

Mr. Bumuutseren was a psychologist in the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator, when he began supplementing his income by buying fruits and vegetables in China and reselling them in Mongolia. During his trips to China, he said, he met locals who offered him money for information on Chinese nationals in Mongolia.

The Chinese "were interested in the Inner Mongolians who lived in Ulan Bator ... especially in those people who conducted political activities and groups of people who conducted political activities outside China," he said.

His code name was Davaa. He took photos and collected intelligence on the leaders of the Inner Mongolian secessionist movement. He passed his findings to his handlers during his business trips to China.

He was paid well for his services, one time collecting a US$1,000 "gift." But he said the Chinese also told him if he stopped spying, they would report him to the Mongolian authorities.

He had been spying for China for just over a year when he was arrested by Mongolian agents at Ulan Bator airport as he was returning from China. He says they starved, beat and tortured him. After three days, he told them about his work for Chinese intelligence. He said he was freed under one condition: he would spy on China for the Mongolian secret service. "Thus I became a double agent," he said.

The Mongolians gave him a watch that contained a recording device. They wanted information on Chinese intelligence officers, the army and Tibetan, Kazakh and Inner Mongolian activists, he said. Each time he returned from a trip to China, he would brief a Mongolian agent and hand over the watch.

The Chinese, meanwhile, began sending Mr. Bumuutseren to the United States to spy on exiled dissidents. In 1997, he was assigned to attend the founding conference of the Inner Mongolian People's Party in Princeton, N.J.

He joined the party and fed information about its members and their activities to the Chinese. Beijing was particularly interested in any links between the party and the Falun Gong religious group, he said.

China paid his travel expenses and gave him money for the information, he said. He returned repeatedly to the U.S. to spy on the Inner Mongolian People's Party, even appearing in a portrait of the party leadership.

Temtsiltu Shobtsood, the party president, said in an interview he had been suspicious of Mr. Bumuutseren because he took so many photographs and advocated using aggressive tactics against the Chinese. A party member had also seen him in the Chinese city of Hohhot, he said.

He said he never knew Mr. Bumuutseren was spying for China but was not surprised. He said China views the Inner Mongolian opposition as a threat. "They think these people are enemies," Mr. Shobtsood said through an interpreter.

He was unaware of any party members being arrested or persecuted as a result of Mr. Bumuutseren's spying but said most now live abroad. "If we go back, certainly there will be a greater risk because of these agents," he said. Mr. Shobtsood, who lives in exile in Germany, said even if Mr. Bumuutseren would be at risk in Mongolia, he should be deported for what he did.

Mr. Bumuutseren's last spy mission to the U.S. was in 2000. Two years later, he was at Beijing airport when Chinese agents ushered him to a car.

He said he was shocked with electrical cables, suspended by his ankles, beaten with sticks and burned with a hot iron. He went eleven days without food or water. A Toronto physician who examined him, Dr. Les Richmond, wrote that the scars on his arms, legs and back were consistent with his account of torture.

Convicted of spying in 2004, he was sentenced to 18 years but was released after just nine months. He said the Chinese gave him fake documents and sent him back to Mongolia, telling him they might reactivate him in the future. He said upon his return home, the Mongolian authorities detained and tortured him. They let him go after seven days.

"I decided to flee to Canada," he said. Following one of his spy trips to the U.S., he had spent a three-day stopover in Vancouver. He said he liked the climate and the nature, which he said reminded him of Mongolia.

The family pretended they were flying to Mexico for a vacation but during a stopover at Toronto's Pearson airport, they asked for asylum.

In movies, spies retire to a quiet life. The ending of Mr. Bumuutseren's story is still uncertain. The Immigration and Refugee Board has ordered his deportation for engaging "in espionage against a democratic institution or process," and the Federal Court has dismissed all of his appeals.

The CBSA says it is unconvinced he faces any genuine risk if he is sent back to his homeland, and says while he was tortured in China, there was no proof he suffered the same treatment in Mongolia.

Mr. Bumuutseren is preparing to challenge that finding.

His predicament is not unique. Mikhail Lennikov, a former member of the Soviet KGB, is living in a Vancouver church trying to avoid deportation. Mansour Ahani, an Iranian intelligence agent, fought fighting his case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada until he was finally deported in 2002.

Rev. Henderson has been helping Mr. Bumuutseren's family with their refugee cases, and raising money for their legal fees. He said the CBSA has assured him it will not arrest Mr. Bumuutseren as long as he is at the church.

"The federal government does not condone individuals hiding in places of worship to avoid removal from Canada and has other safeguards in place to ensure people in need of protection are not removed," said Anna Pape, a CBSA spokeswoman.

"Each situation is dealt with on a case-by-case basis. However, the fact that a person is hiding in a place of worship to avoid removal does not influence the federal government's decision concerning the case. It is imperative for the integrity of this system that once individuals have exhausted all avenues, they respect our immigration laws and leave Canada."

The church has given Mr. Bumuutseren its basement meeting room. It has a bed, TV, couch, exercise bike and dumbbells. The walls are decorated with his own paintings, all of them depicting butterflies, a symbol of his desire for freedom.

He spends his days painting and minding his three-year-old Canadian-born daughter, while his wife Monica works at Costco. He does not work and collects a disability pension from the Ontario government.

He has flashbacks triggered by sirens, police, shouting and telephones. His body is burned and scarred, and his eyesight is failing, a result of his two years in a dark Chinese prison.

"I am terrified to return to Mongolia. I believe I will be harmed there," he wrote in his court affidavit. "If I were removed alone from Canada to Mongolia, I would not be able to survive."

National Post

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