U.N. refugee head protests to Cambodia over reported deportation of Falun Gong followers to China

GENEVA - The United Nations refugee chief has sent a formal protest to Cambodian authorities over the alleged deportation of two Falun Gong followers to China, his office said Tuesday.

Ruud Lubbers, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, is concerned because Cambodia was believed to have deported the couple even though they were recognized as refugees by the United Nations, said spokesman Kris Janowski.

"Cambodia is responsible for ensuring people are not shipped back to a place where they may be in danger," Janowski told reporters. "They basically violated this commitment," set out in an international treaty on refugees.

Cambodian authorities have so far failed to respond to Lubbers' protest, said Janowski.

Li Guojun, 46, and his 39-year-old wife, Zhang Xinyi, both Chinese members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, were arrested by Cambodian police earlier this month.

The couple had been living in Cambodia since 1998. In July they were granted "persons of concern" status by UNHCR. The designation aims to safeguard people from being sent back to their country of origin where they would face persecution.

"Their situation and whereabouts are unknown," said Janowski.

The New York-based Falun Dafa Information Center, which maintains contact with Falun Gong followers around the world, said the couple had been forcibly put on a flight to Guangzhou, China.

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

Janowski said UNHCR also had protested the disappearance of a Buddhist monk with refugee status, who was feared deported to Vietnam.

In April, UNHCR criticized Cambodian authorities for allowing Vietnamese officials to visit a camp housing refugees from Vietnam's central highlands.

UNHCR said the officials tried to intimidate the refugees, from the Christian Montagnard tribe, into returning to Vietnam, even though they claimed they faced religious persecution by the country's communist government.