Authorities in the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning have formally arrested two South Korean Protestant pastors accused of trying to help North Koreans flee across the border into China.
Neither pastor has been named. One was arrested along with his wife in February as they tried to board a plane for South Korea from Qingdao in the eastern province of Shandong, while the second was detained at a hotel in the northeastern city of Qinhuangdao, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported.
While both wives have since been released, the two pastors remain in police detention.
Peter Chung, spokesman for the human rights group Justice For North Korea, said their families have hired lawyers to represent the pastors, now that the cases look set to proceed to trial.
“The cases are now with the state prosecutor’s office; all the files are with the prosecutor now,” Chung told RFA on April 5. “This was approved on March 29.”
He said “their lawyers have already met with them a number of times, and they both seem to be in good health.”
A Chinese rights lawyer who declined to be named said the pastors had been charged with “organizing illegal crossing of a national border,” a charge carrying a relatively light sentence in view of the humanitarian intentions behind their actions.
“I think they are trying to treat them in a friendly manner, bearing in mind political considerations, because they are foreigners,” the lawyer said. “They will be dealt with a bit more leniently.”
“It’s likely that they will be deported before sentencing, or even after it, but not have to serve it,” he said.
China says North Koreans fleeing political persecution in the home country are “economic migrants,” and typically repatriates them.