Two Falun Gong followers in Cambodia under U.N. protection seized, deported

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - Cambodian police arrested two Falun Gong followers under United Nations protection and sent them back to China earlier this month, an activist with the mediation sect said Saturday.

Li Guojun, 46, and his 39-year-old wife, Zhang Xinyi, were arrested Aug. 2 at their Phnom Penh apartment and a few days later forcibly put on a flight to Guangzhou, China, said Levi Browde of the Falun Dafa Information Center in New York. The center maintains contact with Falun Gong followers around the world.

Their arrests occurred less than a month after the couple was granted "persons of concern" status by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, Browde said. The designation aims to safeguard people from being sent back to their country of origin where they would face persecution.

The Falun Gong is outlawed in mainland China as an "evil cult." Thousands of followers have been arrested and sent to labor camps since 1999.

It was at least the second time this year persons under U.N. protection in Phnom Penh were handed over to foreign authorities. Similar incidents occurred last year.

Browde said other practitioners of the spiritual movement in Phnom Penh are worried about their safety.

"They don't feel frightened or endangered by the Cambodian government but do know they are being monitored very closely by the Chinese Embassy and are very concerned what the Chinese government might do," Browde told The Associated Press by telephone.

The couple, who arrived in Phnom Penh from China in 1998, was known to meditate several times a week at their home with a small group of friends, Browde said. They lost their jobs teaching Chinese in May, and Zhang Xinyi was refused a passport extension by the Chinese Embassy in June, the information center said, citing unnamed sources in Phnom Penh.

They were now being held in a detention center in their home town of Changsha, the capital of China's Hunan province, but their condition is unknown, Browde said.

The center accused Chinese diplomats of prodding Cambodian authorities to deport the couple, a charge denied by the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh.

"I think they are lying. We never ask the Cambodian side to make arrests," an embassy spokesman said Friday.

Cambodian National Police Commander Gen. Hok Lundy said he "did not know anything" about the reported arrests and deportations, but did not deny they took place.

The Falun Dafa center blasted the United Nations for failing to protect the couple.

Acting director of Cambodia's UNHCR, Elizabeth Kirton, refused to comment. An official at Thailand's UNHCR office also refused Friday to discuss details of the case but expressed "concern over the reports" and criticized Cambodia for violating the 1951 global convention on refugees, which Cambodia has signed.

"Cambodia has international obligations and is expected to live up to them," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Not returning people to their country of origin where they will face persecution is the cornerstone of refugee law."