South Korean officials confirmed today that a pair of Chinese Falun Gong practitioners were repatriated to China in July following a court decision not to grant them refugee status. A South Korean court has reportedly also turned down petitions by 30 Falun Gong practitioners on a ruling that it could not find proof that they had been persecuted in China.
Seoul denies the repatriations were the result of pressure from Beijing, adding that it cannot allow illegal immigrants to remain in the country absent clear evidence that they would be persecuted because of their religious beliefs.
Clear evidence? In April the New York Times reported that since China launched its campaign against what it calls an “evil cult” a decade ago, tens of thousands of practitioners have been jailed, and as many as 2,000 have been killed. In the past year, the Times reported, as many as 8,000 have been arrested, of whom 100 are believed to have died while in custody.
Clear evidence? Last month, Shao Yuhua (邵玉華), a Chinese-born woman who married a Taiwanese and now has Taiwanese citizenship, was arrested in China while visiting her sister. Her crime? She is a Falun Gong practitioner. “Shao Yuhua was arrested only because she practices Falun Gong. She was subjected to sleep deprivation. The police tried to force her to write a letter promising that she will no longer practice. She and her family were threatened,” said Chu (Theresa) Wanchi (朱婉琪), a human rights lawyer who had a three-hour conversation with Shao after her release on Aug. 6.*
Whether Seoul is being pressured by Beijing to repatriate Falun Gong practitioners seeking asylum in the country is debatable, as is the likelihood that South Korean authorities would allow themselves to be influenced by Chinese demarches. But to claim that it is justified in repatriating Falun Gong practitioners because courts do not have clear evidence that they will be persecuted because of their beliefs stretches the imagination. Furthermore, by virtue of their having sought refugee status in another country, those practitioners have elevated their status while drawing international attention onto something Beijing would rather remained domestic. As such, the treatment awaiting them back in China will likely be much harsher, involving years of imprisonment and torture. For that reason alone, South Korea and other governments that believe they are not morally bound to grant Falun Gong members asylum should reconsider.
*International attention (Former Canadian parliamentarian David Kilgour, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International), protests by Falun Gong practitioners and help from the Taiwanese authorities (Mainland Affairs Council, Straits Exchange Foundation and the Ministry of Justice) all contributed to her release on Aug. 6.