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Chinese human rights defender, refugee to be prosecuted in Thai court

On 25 January 2017, Chumphon Court schedules for evidence and witness examination trial between public prosecutor (Plaintiff) and Mr. Song Zhiyu (Defendant), the mechanical design engineer and computer programmer, on charges under the Immigration Act B.E. 2522 (1979), despite the fact that Mr. Song has been recognized by UNHCR Thailand as a genuine refugee, who should enjoy international protection.

Mr. Song is a Chinese Falun Gong practitioner and a human rights defender who advocated for the rights of Falun Gong practitioners, also published articles on persecution committed by Communist Party of China on websites. As the result, Mr. Song had been persecuted, detained, imprisoned, tortured, and enslaved in Chinese labour camps several times between 2008 and 2014.

Until March 2014, Mr Song took an important decision to escape China from persecution by Chinese government to seek refuge in a safe third country via Thailand. In March 2016, Mr. Song along with other Chinese refugees who decided to take a risky journal by talking a tourist boat from Pattaya to seek asylum in New Zealand, were arrested by Thai authority after their boat capsized in Pathew Bay in Chumphon. Their stories became a spotlight and captured international and national media’s attention in the middle of last year.

Through Ms. Kohnwilai Teppunkoonngam, his lawyer and a member of Coalition for the Rights of Refugees and Stateless Persons (CRSP), Mr. Song told us that before his travel to Thailand, he was arrested, detained, imprisoned and forced to perform labor services several times in Chinese labor camps from 2008 to 2014, because he was Falun Gong practitioner whom Chinese authority deemed as a threat to the Communist Party of China (CPC). In addition, Mr. Song was a key human rights defender, who disclosed abuses and atrocities committed by CPC on websites and refused to renounce his faith. Until March 2014, he decided to break away from the abuses by Chinese authority and to seek refuge in a third country via Thailand.

“The deprivation of freedom of expression, forced religion conversion, forced labour, torture and degrading treatment against Mr. Song constituted persecution and grave human rights violation under international law,” said Ms. Kohnwilai. She also added that Mr. Song is not only a refugee under international principles, but he is also human rights defender and victim of torture. “The prosecution against him without regarding these grounds would be tantamount to human rights violation under international obligations which Thailand is bound to respect.”

Ms. Kohnwilai pointed out that when refugees has been prosecuted or criminalized, they will be transferred to Immigration Detention Centre (IDC), pending for repatriation or resettlement into other safe third countries which take several years. “During these periods, they will be vulnerable to exploitation by brokers, smugglers or criminal gangs as they feel helpless and totally lose their freedom, so they will strive to go further to any country they hope to respect their rights and freedoms. Prosecution against refugees, therefore is not a good strategy to stop smuggling and illegal immigration,” she concluded.

Not only Mr. Song, but there are several refugees from China and other countries who are detained without a definite timeframe in IDC, Suan Plu, because they cannot return to the countries where their lives will be at risk. Among them are Mrs. Gu Qiao and her 1-year-old child, Falun Gong refugees who shared the same boat and journey with Mr. Song in March 2014.

Although Thailand has not yet signed the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, it is party to several human rights instruments, particularly the Convention against Torture which enshrines principle of non-refoulement. However in recent years, Thai government secretly sent back many Chinese refugees to China. Coalition for the Rights of Refugees and Stateless Persons (CRSP), therefore, calls for Thailand’s commitment on alternative to detention measures, reviewing of Immigration Act B.E. 2522 (1979), and establishment of a special agency to screen urban refugees and to provide temporary stay in Thailand during their waiting periods for resettlement in other countries. All of these would contribute to sustainable solutions for Thailand to resolve refugee issues.