Save North Korean Refugees Day, which falls on 24 September, aims to highlight the terrible trials faced by North Korean refugees in China.
It also marks the day, 36 years ago, that China became a signatory to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, an agreement the country continues to violate through its treatment of North Korean escapees.
China’s forced repatriation of North Korean refugees is illegal as it violates the fundamental international humanitarian principle of ‘non-refoulement’, which prohibits receiving countries from returning refugees to a country where they would likely face persecution due to their “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.
And yet, that is exactly what they are being sent back to: North Korea is one of the world’s most repressive regimes, referred to by the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry as “a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world” in terms of human rights violations. CSW’s 2016 report previously revealed that deported escapees regularly face execution, torture, arbitrary detention, deliberate starvation, illegal cavity searches, forced abortions, and other sexual violence at the hands of the North Korean authorities.
Tank Cemetery, Outside Asmara
A thick layer of dust coats everything inside the Eritrean embassy in the Ethiopian capital, which was unlocked this week for the first time since 1998. Photos of this ‘time capsule’ were published by the BBC, which, along with the world’s media, is charting the remarkable thaw in relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The two nations went to war in 1998 but maintained a war footing due to Ethiopia’s refusal to allow demarcation of their common border, in accordance with a 2003 ruling.
“He was forced to take medicine. They stuffed the pills into his mouth… After taking the pills he felt pain in his muscles and his vision was blurred… He was beaten. He endured gruelling questioning while being denied sleep for days on end…”
Wang Qiaoling describing the torture of her husband, lawyer Li Heping
“Even our breaths were suppressed. No voices. No texts. No images. No talking. No walking. Our hands, feet, our posture…every body movement was strictly limited. We needed permission for even the most trivial action”.
Lawyer Zhao Wei, the youngest legal assistant detained in the 709 Crackdown
“Prisoners were also put in cages submerged mostly in water, and left inside for seven days, the entire body underwater with a space to breath at the top. As they stood in the water and tried to sleep, rats would scurry about outside the cage, biting their nose and ears.”
Letter to world leaders by ‘709’ Family Members
These are just a few accounts of the torture experienced by human rights lawyers in China. Over 300 lawyers, activists, colleagues and family members were detained, interrogated or disappeared in a sweeping crackdown beginning on 9 July 2015, dubbed the 709 Crackdown. Two years on, most have been released, some on “bail” conditions amounting to house arrest, but with news of their release have come numerous testimonies of physical and psychological torture including frequent beatings, sleep deprivation, forced medication, violent threats, and prolonged isolation.
Use of torture in China
Lawyers and activists are by no means the only victims of torture. Many of the lawyers caught up in the crackdown had defended clients who had been tortured by police or security agents, including those arrested in connection with their religion or belief such as Falun Gong practitioners and Christians associated with unregistered churches, as well as those accused of crimes not related to politics or religion.
Human rights lawyer, Li Heping (right) pictured with his brother Li Chunfu (left) following his release from detention.
Li Heping’s reunion with his family on 9 May 2017 was a moment for celebration; the celebration of an innocent man’s reunion with his long-suffering family and the celebration of the end of a period of torture, interrogation and imprisonment. But the joy of Li Heping’s reunion with his family is tempered by continuing concerns for his safety, and the injustice of his situation.
Who is Li Heping?
Li Heping is one of China’s most experienced and high profile human rights lawyers. He began working on sensitive cases around 2002 and is well known for defending the human rights of religious minorities, including Christians and Falun Gong practitioners, as well as activists and victims of torture.
His work on these cases led to a confrontation with the state. A Chinese security agent reportedly once told him that, in the eyes of Beijing, Li had become “more dangerous than Bin Laden”. In September 2007, Li was abducted, stripped and tortured by security forces. He then had his lawyers’ license revoked in 2009, and continued to be consistently monitored.