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.
The arrests come amid rising tensions between South Korea and China over Seoul's deployment of a U.S.-made missile defense system that China says will affect the regional balance of power.
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.
While both wives have since been released, the two pastors remain in police detention on charges linked to illegal immigration.
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 Wednesday. "This was approved on March 29."
"Their lawyers have already met with them a number of times, and they both seem to be in good health," he said.
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.
Calls to the Shenyang municipal police department rang unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.
Missile defense system
South Korea announced last month that it had begun deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) antimissile system sparked a backlash across China, with some hotels saying they wouldn't take South Korean guests.
The move has drawn strong diplomatic protests from Beijing, and sparked demonstrations and store closures at outlets of the South Korea retail chain Lotte across China, as well as the public destruction of South Korean goods.
South Korea and the United States say the system is aimed solely at defending the South against a growing North Korean missile threat.
But Beijing fears the system's powerful radar will compromise its national security.
The pastors' arrests came as China expelled 32 South Korean missionaries based in the northeastern Yanji region bordering North Korea, and arrested four other men, one of whom is a South Korean national.
China says North Koreans fleeing political persecution in the home country are "economic migrants," and typically repatriates them.
Travel within North Korea and across the border into China is officially strictly regulated, with people required to obtain passes, but traders and refugees often manage to travel without required permits by bribing border guards and soldiers at checkpoints.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.