George Karimi was the first European to receive a life sentence in China. He spent the first two years in a detention center without even knowing what he was accused of. Then he stood trial as the ringleader of a gang counterfeiting U.S. dollars. All of this was news to Karimi, he said. He believes he was the subject of a political hit after one of his Chinese business associates got in trouble with the wrong Party boss.
Karimi’s recently published book, “Life Sentenced in China: A True Story of a Businessman in Chinese Prison,” is a detailed account of the Chinese judicial and criminal justice system from the inside, and one of the few such documents to be produced by a Western pen.
Karimi’s account spans his 12 years in detention centers and prisons, after being arrested in Beijing in 2003. Prisoners come and go through Karimi’s cell. Readers accompany him as he chats with inmates, police, other foreigners, Chinese CEOs of state-owned companies, and officials who have fallen victim to some of the same dirty tricks that Karimi says he was subject to. Everything is for sale in this China, including Karimi’s own freedom.
The book is full of examples of absurdity. One of his cellmates, for instance, is a purged Party official who still praises the Communist Party after being sentenced to death by it.
There are also the guards who order Chinese inmates to beat up an American prisoner and then force inmates to make false testimony that the American started the fight. This leaves the American Embassy in the dark, unable to protest or provide assistance.
The book has some weaknesses. Karimi does not attempt to hide his bitterness over the injustice he has been subjected to and regularly describes his hatred of the police and the Party. It may have been stronger if he had simply told his story and let the facts speak for themselves. Background about his own life and what led him to business in China—in particular, whatever business he was in that led, incidentally or not, to the inside of a Chinese prison—is absent or vague.
These deficits are easy to overlook, though, and Karimi’s bittersweet prison humor offers the occasional respite from the grimness of life on the inside.
After seven years, Karimi became the first Swede to be transferred from a Chinese prison to a Swedish one. He served more than five years there—in much more commodious conditions than in China—before being released on Nov. 19, 2015.
If you’re considering going to China for business, read this book first. You will quickly find that once you get to China, you’re on your own. Sweden was largely at the whims of Chinese authorities as to the treatment Karimi would receive, and had no insight whatsoever into the legitimacy of the criminal justice procedures that led to his extraordinary punishment.
“Life Sentenced in China: A True Story of a Businessman in Chinese Prison” is a worthy edition to the literature of Chinese human rights experiences and prison memoirs.