The families of two Chinese democracy activists handed over to Beijing by the Thai authorities left Bangkok en route to Canada for resettlement as refugees, activists said on Wednesday.
The move comes after their husbands Jiang Yefei and Dong Guangping, who had fled persecution in their home countries, were handed back to the Chinese authorities last Friday in a move that drew strong criticism from the United Nations.
Jiang's wife Chu Ling, Dong's wife Gu Shuhua and daughter Dong Xuerui boarded a flight from Bangkok to Toronto in the early hours of Wednesday morning, activists told RFA.
"The families of Jiang Yefei and Dong Guangping ... are currently on their way to Toronto," Bangkok-based democracy activist Li Xiaolong told RFA. "This was part of an emergency operation."
"They are safe now ... but they are feeling very sad, because they were unable to travel with their loved ones."
He said Jiang and Dong's names were also on the resettlement papers for Canada, but that their whereabouts are still unknown.
"United Nations staff had no way to demand that the Thai government hand these two people back to them," Li said.
The three are scheduled to arrive in Toronto on Thursday, Canada-based writer and democracy activist Sheng Xue told RFA.
"They will travel via Dubai and arrive tomorrow just past 3.00 p.m. eastern time in Toronto," Sheng said.
"This has been a very difficult rescue operation, because as everyone knows, Jiang Yefei and Dong Guangping were arrested by the Thai police, ostensibly because they ... had no legal papers," she said.
Sheng said five Chinese nationals including Jiang and Dong had been repatriated on an aircraft chartered for the purpose by the Chinese government.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Tuesday that Jiang and Dong were legitimate refugees who should not be sent back to China.
"This action by Thailand is clearly a serious disappointment, and underscores the longstanding gap in Thai domestic law concerning ensuring appropriate treatment of persons with international protection needs," the UNHCR said.
Vivian Tan, regional spokeswoman for UNHCR, told Reuters: "These people are recognised refugees, meaning they were interviewed and their claim of persecution was found to be legitimate,"
"They should not be sent back to a place where their lives can be put in danger."
Cartoonist is torture victim
Jiang and Dong were arrested on Oct. 28 at the request of Chinese officials, who have only said that the case is being handled "according to the law." They were removed from their jail cell and from computer records at the Thai immigration detention center in Bangkok on Friday.
Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees, and there is no provision for asylum seekers in its domestic laws.
Sheng said she had tried to speed up the departure of Jiang, Dong and their families by putting pressure on the Canadian authorities.
"I got in touch with UNHCR and the Canadian foreign ministry as soon as they were arrested, as well as some Canadian MPs and rights groups," Sheng said.
"The strange thing about this whole business was that there was already a [resettlement] agreement in place between UNHCR and the Canadian government," she said.
"Jiang and Dong were still forcibly repatriated to China even though Canada had agreed to take them."
Sheng said her sources indicated the other three Chinese nationals were Hong Kong publisher Gui Minhai and two Falun Gong practitioners, Zhou Yong and Xiao Lin.
However, Thai national Wu Sihai said he had taken food to Zhou and Xiao Lin in the immigration detention center at 10.00 a.m. on Wednesday.
"I asked the immigration authorities if I could act as their sponsor, but they said that would take at least two weeks," Wu said.
Repeated calls to the immigration bureau in Bangkok rang unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.
Dong fled China with his family in September after serving a three-year jail term for subversion from 2001-2004, and being “disappeared” and held for eight months in secret detention in 2014.
Political cartoonist Jiang had been in Thailand since 2008, having left China after being detained and tortured over his criticism of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's handling of the devastating Sichuan earthquake. He was granted refugee status last April.
After their arrest, Dong and Jiang pleaded guilty to charges of illegal immigration, and were fined 5,000 (U.S. $139) and 6,000 baht (U.S. $167) respectively for the offense.
Their guilty plea paved the way for deportation procedures to begin, and the Chinese government paid the fines on their behalf, activists told RFA.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.