STOCKHOLM — A former Swedish ambassador to China was cleared of charges of wrongdoing on Friday, culminating a strange saga that combined elements of a spy novel with the opaque reality of dealing with an authoritarian state where people can be grabbed in public and disappear.
It was the first time in modern history that a Swedish diplomat has been prosecuted for crimes against state security, and the often heated trial revolved around questions about the written and unwritten rules of diplomacy.
The Swedish diplomat, Anna Lindstedt, was accused of overstepping the boundaries of her role by arranging what prosecutors said were secret back-room meetings over the fate of a Hong Kong bookseller and Swedish citizen who remains detained in China.
The bookseller, Gui Minhai, has not been seen by his family or in public since February.
Swedish prosecutors argued that Ms. Lindstedt had overstepped her authority in arranging a meeting between Mr. Gui’s daughter, Angela, and two businessmen who offered to help her secure her father’s freedom.
Hans Ihrman, the deputy chief public prosecutor for Sweden’s National Security Unit, argued that the meeting was instead an attempt to intimidate Ms. Gui and silence her scathing critiques of Beijing.
Ms. Lindstedt’s defense team argued that she had acted solely out of a desire to free a Swedish citizen. Two retired ambassadors gave testimony on her behalf, saying that ambassadors have wide latitude to act and are not obligated to report everything to the Foreign Ministry.
She was also supported by twenty-one former Swedish diplomats, who earlier this year wrote a defense of Ms. Lindstedt in Dagens Nyheter, a daily newspaper, arguing that she was availing herself of standard tools and powers at an ambassador’s disposal.
“The description of the crime refers to completely different, traitorous situations associated with war and conflicts,” the former ambassadors wrote
The court agreed, saying the prosecution had not met any of the requirements to prove their case and finding Ms. Lindstedt not guilty on the official charge of “arbitrariness during negotiations with a foreign power.”
“The court did not see that the prosecutor has proved that the ambassador negotiated with anyone representing the Chinese state,” Judge Anna Flodin said during a news conference announcing the verdict. “The court found that had she done so, she would have been empowered to in her role as ambassador.”
The case — and the underlying issues related to the detention of a Swedish citizen — exacerbated a deep rift between Sweden and China and underscored many of the fears about Beijing’s’s deepening influence in a Hong Kong, where people’s long guaranteed civil liberties, including freedom of speech and assembly, have been increasingly eroded by the Chinese government.
Before China imposed a draconian new security law over Hong Kong that threatens the territory’s vibrant culture of political dissent, Beijing came for the city booksellers.
Mr. Gui, who published books critical of China’s Communist leaders, was one of five book publishers taken into custody in 2015. The brazenness of his seizure — he was snatched by the police aboard a train to Beijing while being watched by Swedish diplomats — provoked an international outcry.
Mr. Gui’s daughter, Angela Gui, said in a July 1 Twitter post that her father’s arrest should have served as a warning of China’s crackdown on Hong Kong, which it announced that day.
Mr. Gui, 54, was born in eastern China and traveled to Sweden to study in 1988, eventually becoming a Swedish citizen in 1992. In recent years, he had worked in Hong Kong, where he was a co-owner of Mighty Current Media, a small publishing house that produced salacious and often poorly sourced books about Chinese Communist Party leaders.
He was at his vacation home in Thailand in 2015 when he was first arrested and spirited off the China.
In early 2016, Mr. Gui appeared on Chinese state television and gave what seemed to be a rehearsed confession to a drunken-driving death in China more than a decade earlier. He was formally freed from detention in October 2017, but he remained in eastern China under close watch, according to Ms. Gui.
In January 2018, as two Swedish diplomats accompanied Mr. Gui to Beijing on a train, Chinese security officers boarded it and abducted him. The Swedish foreign minister called it a “brutal intervention” that violated international law. Soon afterward, Mr. Gui appeared on Chinese television, saying in an interview organized by the police that he didn’t need help from Sweden.
Mr. Gui was last heard from publicly at a sentencing hearing in China in February. A court in the city of Ningbo in eastern China did not provide details about the accusations against him beyond issuing a brief notice saying he had “undermined China’s national security and interests.”
Ms. Lindstedt was accused late last year of arranging the talks between Mr. Gui’s daughter and two Chinese men who had offered to help free her father in January.
But according to a detailed account that Ms. Gui published on Medium, the meeting was strange.
“What I thought was going to be a meeting about the Swedish government’s latest efforts to win my father’s release turned out to something quite different,” she wrote. “The businessmen spoke to me with a mix of flattery and reassurances that they were going to ‘help me,’ without explaining how this help was going to be delivered.”
She testified in the trial, saying she felt “very pressured” at the meeting.
Mr. Ihrman, the deputy chief public prosecutor, described the meeting as an attempt by Chinese officials to stop Ms. Gui’s criticism of the Chinese government.
“It’s about this daughter’s right to freedom of speech, which they have tried to act upon,” he said at the start of the trial.
In court, Mr. Olin tried to demonstrate a pattern of how China and the Chinese ambassador in Sweden responded to Swedish criticism of Gui Minhai’s imprisonment and other cases in which China was presented in a negative light, citing reports by the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and the Swedish Defense Research Agency.
However, a lawyer for Ms. Lindstedt, Conny Cedermark, argued that her client was innocent.
“Arbitrary conduct in negotiation with a foreign power has a series of prerequisites,” he said, and none of them had been met in the case.
The court agreed.
Christina Anderson reported from Stockholm, and Marc Santora from London.