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Officials: Feds thwart Chinese threat scheme against its citizens in U.S.

FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks at a Wednesday

FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks at a Wednesday news conference held to announce federal charges against eight defendants accused of taking part in a Chinese goverment scheme against a number of its citizens in the U.S. Credit: Bloomberg/Sarah Silbiger

A Chinese government plot using threats and intimidation to force the return of a number of its citizens in the United States has been thwarted and eight people, including three from Queens and a Brooklyn resident, face federal charges, officials said Wednesday.

The eight were charged with acting as illegal agents of the People’s Republic of China, and six face additional charges of conspiring to commit interstate and international stalking, officials said.

All of the defendants engaged in an "international campaign to threaten, harass, surveil and intimidate" Chinese citizens in the U.S., federal officials said. One victim was a New Jersey resident identified only as John Doe-1, according to Acting Eastern District United States Attorney Seth DuCharme. Information on other victims was not immediately released.

Three defendants were scheduled for arraignment Wednesday in Brooklyn federal court, including a New Jersey private detective hired to locate the unidentified target of the scheme.

Two of the plotters were arrested in California and are scheduled for a hearing there, and three remained at large Wednesday, officials said.

The scheme, which the Chinese government called "Operation Fox Hunt" or "Operation Skynet," targeted overseas Chinese citizens who supposedly have committed crimes in China, officials said. The crimes that John Doe-1 allegedly committed were not identified, but officials said the overall Chinese scheme targeted dissidents.

Proper forms of "international law enforcement cooperation" exist, such as such Interpol or open government to government communications, to apprehend individuals accused of crimes in their native country but now living overseas, officials said in a news release. Instead, the Chinese government used "clandestine, unsanctioned and illegal conduct within the United States," the officials said.

As part of the scheme, Chinese officials had John-Doe-1’s elderly father taken to the U.S. against his wishes, officials said. The plan was to surveil the father’s movements in order to locate his son and then have the father convince his son to return to China, officials said.

One of the defendants, Michael McMahon, a private detective from Mahwah, New Jersey, was hired to locate John Doe-1, in part by following the victim's father, officials said.

When Joe Doe-1’s New Jersey home was eventually located, officials said, one of the defendants left a note on the target’s front door that stated in Chinese: "If you are willing to go back to the mainland and spend ten years in prison, your wife and children will be all right. That’s the end of his matter!"

In another part of the scheme, officials said, John Doe-1 was sent packages containing letters and videos warning him to return to China or his family members living there would be harmed, officials said.

In a separate statement, Acting Eastern District United States Attorney Seth DuCharme said: "As alleged, the defendants assisted [People's Republic of China] officials in a scheme to coerce targeted individuals to return to the PRC against their will …. The United States will not tolerate the conduct of PRC carrying out state-authorized actions on U.S. soil without notice to, and coordination with, the appropriate U.S. authorities. Nor will we tolerate the unlawful harassment and stalking of U.S. residents to further PRC objectives."

At a news conference in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, John Demers, the U.S. assistant attorney general for national security said: "With these criminal charges, we have turned the PRC’s Operation Fox Hunt on its head and the hunters became the hunted, the pursuers the pursued. … Five defendants illegally doing the bidding of the Chinese government here in the United States now face the prospect of prison and our message is clear: Stay out. This behavior is not welcome here."

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