China’s government used American private investigators to harass dissidents in the United States, according to a federal indictment of five people made public last week.
The indictment identified five men who are charged with acting as foreign agents of China in a scheme to monitor and harass three dissidents who were not identified by name.
Breon Peace, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said the case involves “a multifaceted campaign to silence, harass, discredit and spy on U.S. residents for exercising their freedom of speech.”
The operation was aided by a current U.S. law enforcement officer who provided information from a government database to those in charge in the case, as well as a private investigator who supplied confidential information on the dissidents, Mr. Peace said.
Those involved in the case also lied to investigators and tried to destroy evidence of their harassment operation, Mr. Peace said in making the indictment public last week.
According to court documents in the case, the five men were part of what the Justice Department calls a “transnational repression” campaign that has been a key feature of Chinese intelligence operations in the United States to silence dissidents.
The initial criminal complaint in the case involved three people, Fan “Frank” Liu, Matthew Ziburis and Qiang “Jason” Sun. The indictment identified two new defendants, Craig Miller and Derrick Taylor.
Mr. Miller worked as a 15-year employee of the Department of Homeland Security as a deportation officer for the department’s enforcement and removal operations in Minneapolis. Mr. Taylor is a retired DHS law enforcement agent and now works as a private investigator in Irvine, California.
Both were arrested in June and charged with obstruction of justice after being questioned by FBI agents about accessing a restricted law enforcement database on Chinese dissidents.
The men claimed they obtained the confidential data from the dark web.
Mr. Liu is president of a media company in New York City and Mr. Ziburis is a former correctional officer and bodyguard. Mr. Sun is based in China and works for a technology company.
The spying operation was directed by Mr. Sun and carried out by Mr. Liu and Mr. Ziburis “to discredit pro-democracy PRC dissidents” in New York, California and Indiana by spreading negative information about them in public. Mr. Liu and Mr. Ziburis were arrested in March, while Mr. Sun remains at large.
In one case, Mr. Liu allegedly paid a private investigator in Queens to bribe an IRS agent to obtain federal tax returns on one dissident. Instead, the private investigator went to authorities and cooperated in the investigation.
The five men also planned to destroy artwork of a Chinese dissident critical of the government. The art involved a sculpture portraying President Xi Jinping as a coronavirus molecule.
The sculpture was destroyed in the spring of 2021.
“Sun paid both Liu and Ziburis for these efforts to stalk, harass and surveil dissidents residing in the United States,” the Justice Department said in a statement announcing the indictment.
In another case, three of the defendants allegedly used electronic means to spy on pro-democracy activists. Mr. Ziburis posed as an art dealer interested in buying artwork from one dissident and helped place surveillance cameras and GPS tracking devices on the dissident’s car and workplace.
“While in the PRC, Sun watched the live video feed and location data from these devices,” the statement said.
The defendants also planned to use similar gear on two other dissidents.
If convicted of the charges, all five people face more than 20 years in prison.
Lawyers for Mr. Liu and Mr. Ziburis did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Lawyers for the other defendants also could not be reached for comment.
Michael J. Driscoll, FBI assistant in New York said the defendants had “committed various acts in furtherance of a transnational repression scheme aimed at silencing the free speech of [Chinese] dissidents on U.S. soil.”
“One of the defendants was even a federal law enforcement officer who allegedly accessed government databases to aid the illegal campaign in direct conflict with his duty to protect the rights of all U.S. residents,” he added.
To counter foreign agents engaged in harassing dissidents, the FBI set up a counterintelligence website to help those seeking to report a crime.