Trapped in China′s justice system | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 30.01.2013
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Trapped in China's justice system

A young German has spent nearly a year in China locked in an obscure justice system. His lawyers and the German Embassy have been unable to help him.

The art logistics manager Nils Jennrich has been accused of tax invasion by Chinese authorities who refuse to let him leave the country.

Jennrich is doing the dishes on the fifth floor of a Beijing high-rise building. The 32-year-old German carries out his daily chores, goes shopping, out to the gym and back to his apartment to cook each day. But this is not necessarily how he would have it if he had the choice.

An official form hangs on his wall. It is filled out. He needs this form in order to leave the country. But one crucial detail is missing: the departure date. Jennrich is not allowed to leave Beijing, nor is he allowed to speak with journalists.

He and his girlfriend are in despair. "I feel like we are in a really hopeless situation; I really don't know what to do," says his girlfriend Jenny Dam.

Cheating customs

Jennrich was arrested in March 2012 and spent months in custody without any court order. In August, he was released on bail, but only after political pressure from Berlin. Since then, he has remained trapped in the obscure Chinese justice system.

According to authorities, Jennrich cheated Chinese customs out of two million euros by declaring too little on the value of imported art works.

Art shipper Nils Jennrich (Photo: dpa)

Art shipper Nils Jennrich is accused of tax invasion

But what remains unclear is why a shipping agent is being prosecuted and not the Chinese customers - some of whom are very wealthy - who declared the value of the works.

No end in sight

Jennrich's three lawyers have studied more than 4,000 pages of alleged evidence. "Our lawyers cannot find any evidence of criminal intent in Nils' actions and it has become clear that neither he nor the shipping company have profited financially," Dam adds.

The proceedings were initiated by customs and later passed on to the prosecutor's office. But, instead of deciding on whether to formally press charges, the prosecutor simply let last weekend's deadline pass. In the meantime, the long waiting is taking a toll on Jennrich.

"According to Chinese law the case can drag on for up to nine months, or even longer," Dam says, adding there is no end in sight. At the same time, near the northern German town of Rendsburg, Jennrich's mother Karin is desperately awaiting the return of her son.

"Deep concerns"

"Jennrich and his girlfriend wanted to get married May 2 last year," his mother says, adding that several family members are seriously ill and facing bleak prospects. "Nils just wants to come back home and be here for his family."

There is also talk in diplomatic circles of "deep concern" about a case where "both the rule of law and the principle of proportionality seem to be absent." Since petitions to the authorities in Beijing have so far been unfruitful, Nils Jennrich has again turned to the German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger asking for help.

"Kill the chicken to scare the monkey"

Meanwhile at their apartment in Beijing, Jennrich and Dam prepare for the next lawyer's appointment. The couple appears to be at the mercy of "higher interests" of the state. Insiders hint at the possibility that the Chinese simply want to edge the Germans out of the art market. After all, the shipping company Jennrich worked for was forced to abandon a special warehouse set up at Beijing airport, thus leaving the field to Chinese competitors.

But it is also likely that the Chinese want to use Jennrich's case as a warning to wealthy art dealers. The Chinese have a saying about this: "Kill the chicken to scare the monkey." But all this doesn't matter to Jennrich anymore. His main goal is simply to get out of China.