The Brooklyn Federal Court in New York, pictured on June 29, 2022.
New York CNN  — 

The United States has charged seven Chinese nationals over an alleged long-running plot to intimidate a US resident into returning to China to face criminal charges.

The case is related to the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s Operation Fox Hunt, an international anti-corruption campaign targeting Chinese fugitives. The Chinese government launched Operation Fox Hunt in 2014 to target wealthy citizens accused of corruption, who had fled the country with large amounts of money.

The US Department of Justice said the Chinese government had taken such law enforcement actions on US soil “in a unilateral manner without approval of, or coordination with, the US government.”

On Thursday, the Justice Department said the charges against the seven defendants included conspiring “to act in the US as illegal agents of the People’s Republic of China.”

Two people have been arrested and detained, while the remaining five defendants are at large. If convicted of acting as agents of China, the defendants face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

According to an indictment unsealed Thursday in federal court in Brooklyn, Chinese officials and their assets threatened the targets and their families, including family members still residing in China, with harm, including incarceration, to coerce their repatriation to China. Authorities claim the defendants conducted surveillance of a US resident in New York and “engaged in a campaign to harass” him to return to China.

In a statement, US Attorney Breon Peace said, “The United States will firmly counter such outrageous violations of national sovereignty and prosecute individuals who act as illegal agents of foreign states.”

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

US Attorney Breon Peace speaking in a news conference in New York on Oct 18, 2022.

The fugitive’s relative

The Justice Department alleges that beginning around 2002, the Chinese government targeted a citizen residing in the eastern district of New York identified only as John Doe-1.

On or about May 16, 2002, the Chinese government caused Interpol to issue a “red notice” for John Doe-1 – a worldwide request advising member states of a wanted fugitive, with information about their identity and alleged criminal conduct, according to the indictment.

The red notice issued for John Doe-1 claimed he embezzled 2 million Chinese yuan (about $276,000) of public funds while working as the general manager of a state-owned corporation in China. The indictment said the allegation carried a maximum possible penalty of life imprisonment in China.

The indictment alleges that in 2017, the defendants and various co-conspirators forced a family member of John Doe-1 to travel from China to the United States to meet with his son. The family member from China allegedly conveyed threats from the Chinese government to John Doe-1’s son that were intended to coerce him back to China.

The indictment said defendants wrote letters warning that “coming back and turning yourself in is the only way out” and threatened that “avoidance and wishful thinking will only result in severe legal punishments.”

It also said China “harassed” John Doe-1 and his son through the filing of a civil lawsuit in a New York court in 2019, which alleged John Doe-1 had stolen funds from his former Chinese employer. The Justice Department said the defendants told the targets the lawsuit would be withdrawn if John Doe-1 returned to China.

The indictment claims the lead defendant transmitted threats on behalf of the Chinese government to John Doe-1 through his son – including the threat that if John Doe-1 did not return, the Chinese government would target his relatives in China, “keep pestering you, [and] make your daily life uncomfortable.”

“They will definitely find new ways to bother you” and “it is definitely true that all of your relatives will be involved,” the defendant once said, according to the indictment.

The lead defendant allegedly met with John Doe-1’s son in January 2020 and offered to pay the money he apparently owed the Chinese government “to help settle the matter,” if John Doe-1 agreed to return to China. The defendant claimed that if this took place, John Doe-1 would not be detained in China.

One of the defendants allegedly met with John Doe-1’s son in September this year and pressed for John Doe-1 to agree to return to China ahead of the Chinese Communist Party National Congress, a week-long meeting of political elites in Beijing that began on Sunday. As part of that agreement, the defendant is alleged to have sought a written confession from John Doe-1, for submission to the Chinese government.

“The victims in this case sought to flee an authoritarian government, leaving behind their lives and family, for a better life here. That same government sent agents to the United States to harass, threaten, and forcibly return them to the People’s Republic of China,” said FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge Michael J. Driscoll in a Justice Department statement.

“The actions we allege are illegal, and the FBI will not allow adversaries to break laws designed to protect our nation and our freedom.”