UN concerned about North Korean defectors in China

GENEVA (REUTERS) - A United Nations (UN) human rights investigator and the UN refugee agency voiced concern on Thursday about the fate of nine North Korean defectors, some of them children, who were sent back to China this week from Laos after trying to cross the border.

Chinese authorities are obliged under international law not to return them to North Korea, where they could face persecution and possibly death, Mr Marzuki Darusman, UN special rapporteur on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), said.

"I have very real concerns about the penalties and treatment they could face if returned to DPRK and all the concerned authorities have an urgent responsibility to ensure their protection," Mr Darusman said in a statement issued in Geneva.

He said no one should be forced to return to North Korea where, he said, "they may face persecution or severe punishment, including torture and the death penalty".

Mr Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, voiced grave concern over the safety of the deportees, whose asylum claims he said had not been assessed.

In a separate statement he said his agency was seeking information about their whereabouts. All states had a duty to refrain from measures that could lead to returning a person to a country where his or her life or freedom would be threatened.

The nine youths, all believed to be orphans, were sent back to China on May 27 after being arrested by Laotian police, Mr Darusman said. Mr Guterres said that they were arrested on May 10 in Laos and that five of the nine were children.

"I am extremely disappointed that the Laos Government appears to have abdicated its protection responsibilities in this way, and I urge the Chinese authorities not to do the same," he said.

North Korean authorities consider it a criminal offence to leave the country without official permission, according to Mr Darusman's latest report.

Mr Darusman, a former attorney-general of Indonesia, is part of a commission of inquiry launched in March to investigate violations and possible crimes against humanity in North Korea.

The three-member commission is expected to focus on allegations of torture and use by North Korea of labour camps believed to hold some 200,000 people, activists say. Pyongyang denies the existence of such camps and is not expected to cooperate.

The UN General Assembly has expressed serious concern about the situation of refugees returned to North Korea and the punishments they can face.