A Thai court will decide next month whether to jail a Chinese dissident on immigration violations despite his U.N. refugee status, his lawyer and a human rights advocate said.
A court in Chumphon province wrapped up a one-day trial for defendant Song Zhiyu on Wednesday, saying it would hand down a verdict on Feb. 16, attorney Kohnwilai Teppunkoonngam told BenarNews.
Song, 44, faces up to two years in a Thai prison if convicted on charges of entering Thailand illegally and staying on without proper papers. A member of the Falun Gong spiritual movement that is banned in China, Song escaped to Thailand in early 2014.
He had been imprisoned and enslaved in forced labor camps several times since 2008 in his home country as punishment for advocating for the rights of Falun Gong practitioners and writing online articles about persecution carried out by the communist party, according to the Coalition for the Rights of Refugees and Stateless Persons (CRSP), a Thai NGO that has provided him with legal representation.
Entering Thailand, he applied for and obtained refugee status from the Bangkok office of the U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) in his effort to be resettled in a third country, Kohnwilai and Siwawong Suktawee, the project coordinator for CRSP, told BenarNews.
In March 2016, Song was arrested and charged with illegal entry into Thailand, after he and three other Chinese nationals tried to sail to Australia in a yacht, but their vessel took on water off Chumphon, which lies on the Gulf of Thailand coast.
“The boat Song took from Pattaya capsized at Pathew Bay. He called for help but officials arrested him. He had refugee status from the UNHCR,” Song’s lawyer, Kohnwilai, told Benar News.
Following his release on bail in June, Song told Radio Free Asia, a sister entity of BenarNews, that the United Nations in Bangkok formally had granted him refugee status.
Despite having been granted refugee status by the U.N., Thailand does not recognize such status, said Siwawong, the CRSP project coordinator.
“The UNHCR process to help him took long and he overstayed his visa,” Siwawong said.
A regional spokeswoman for UNHCR declined to speak about the case of the Chinese design engineer and computer programmer who faces the prospect of prison time in Thailand.
“For confidentiality reasons we cannot comment on individual cases,” Vivian Tan told BenarNews on Thursday via email.
“In Thailand, we work to sensitize the authorities that people with UNHCR-issued documents should not be arrested or detained. When we learn of arrests, our staff intervenes to try to secure their release as soon as possible,” she added.
No safe haven
Song’s case is one of several recently involving Chinese refugees or asylum seekers who have landed in trouble with law enforcement officials in Thailand. Local authorities last year detained a teenaged Chinese university student who was seeking political asylum in Thailand over an expired passport.
In November 2015, Thailand repatriated Chinese asylum seekers Jiang Yefei and Dong Guangping who had escaped alleged persecution back home, amid protests by the United Nations.
In 2016, RFA quoted activists as saying that many Chinese refugees in Thailand were effectively on the run within the kingdom’s boundaries, “constantly moving around in a bid to evade arrest and deportation on illegal immigration charges.”
A Thai police officer, who asked not to be named, said Thai authorities typically do not arrest or prosecute foreigners who have refuge status or are classified as “persons of concern” (POC).
“We agree we will leave the people with POC status alone, as they are awaiting resettlement, but in this case, Song blatantly broke the laws and it was widely reported. The authorities must react with arrest,” the officer told BenarNews.
The three other Chinese who were detained after being rescued from the stranded vessel were a family: Li Xiaolong was piloting the boat and was traveling with his wife, Gu Qiao, and their son, Li Yisheng.
Thai authorities freed Li Xiaolong after he served time in jail for breaking Thailand’s navigation laws, but his wife and child, who both had been granted refugee status by the U.N., are being held at the Bangkok Immigration Detention Center, Kohnwilai said.