Chinese rights activist Huang Yan, a former torture victim who spoke out publicly in support of rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, has been granted a temporary stay in the democratic island of Taiwan after being recognized as a genuine refugee by the United Nations.
Huang abandoned a flight from Jakarta to Beijing during its stopover in Taiwan on Tuesday, and sought political asylum on the island instead, she told RFA in an interview on Wednesday.
"I am very happy," she said. "When I left the airport in Taiwan, pushing my suitcase, I thought to myself that I am totally free. But at the same time, I am still suffering psychologically from all the years of persecution."
"I was thinking that I would start revealing [my story], bit by bit, after I arrived in Taiwan," she said. "There is so much to tell; I wouldn't get done telling it if I spoke for several days and nights without stopping."
Huang said she is very grateful to Taiwan, which has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, for letting her in on a 90-day permit while her application is being considered.
"Thank God, and thank Taiwan," she said.
Huang arrived aboard a flight operated by the island's flag-carrier China Airlines. Her ticket took her as far as Beijing, but she declined to board the second leg of the flight, and made herself known to Taiwan officials at the airport.
She was supported in her application by Yang Sen-hong, president of the Taiwan Association for China Human Rights, and his wife Ling Yao-chiu, its secretary-general.
The couple met Huang, 48, when she emerged at Taoyuan International Airport on Wednesday.
A genuine refugee
Huang fled China after years of harassment, repeated incarceration, and torture at the hands of the mainland Chinese authorities linked to her rights activism.
Her escape to Thailand from the former British colony of Hong Kong, which runs a separate immigration border from mainland China, was assisted by Bob Fu, president of U.S.-based Christian rights group China Aid, and culminated in her being recognized as a genuine refugee by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
But her Thai visa was due to expire, and she was still awaiting resettlement in a third country. Thai authorities are quick to repatriate Chinese dissidents whose papers are no longer in order.
In November 2015, rights activists Dong Guangping and Jiang Yefei were handed back to Chinese authorities to face subversion charges in a move that drew strong criticism from the U.N., which had already classified them as genuine political refugees.
"If I had allowed the visa to expire, then I would have been detained," Huang said. "I wanted to buy a ticket to Taiwan, but they would have stopped me [from boarding], because [the Thai authorities] wanted to send me back to China."
"So, a couple of days ago, I bought a ticket back to China that changed planes in Taiwan," she said. "I was very worried in case they wouldn't let me leave."
On arrival in Taiwan, she had to spend a night in the airport before being allowed to proceed through immigration.
"There was a woman [immigration officer] who ... took me to eat Taiwan beef noodles on her lunch break," she said. "I could feel the tears running down my face as I was eating that bowl of noodles; I have been chased, harried, stopped and persecuted for so long in Asian countries, and nobody has ever so much as offered to buy me a bottle of water."
"The immigration authorities in [Thailand and Indonesia] question you pretty much the same as the Chinese police question you," she said.
Taiwan has a tense relationship with Beijing, which regards the island as a renegade province awaiting "reunification" and has never renounced the possibility of military force to achieve that goal.
The island has been ruled separately from mainland China since the nationalist government of the 1911 Republic of China fled there after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong's communists in 1949.
The majority of its 23 million residents are happy with self-rule, and many identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.
Taiwan's government, which operates as the Republic of China dating back to the 1911 revolution under Sun Yat-sen, is typically reluctant to be seen as a safe haven for Chinese dissidents fleeing persecution across the Taiwan Strait.
‘Purely a humanitarian issue’
Chiu Chui-cheng, spokesman for the island's Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), said Huang, a survivor of repeated bouts of torture during incarceration in China, has been allowed in on humanitarian grounds.
"This is purely a humanitarian issue ... Taiwan was founded on core values of human rights," Chiu said. "The most important thing is that Yang Sen-hong has brought this application and is acting as her sponsor and as the person responsible for her."
According to a 2011 statement by detained rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, Huang was kidnapped and imprisoned with members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, where she suffered repeated torture.
"In addition, Huang saw and heard and with her own eyes and ears torture of Falun Gong adherents that was even more terrifying," he wrote.
In November 2015, the United Nations Committee against Torture (CAT) said torture and ill-treatment remain "deeply entrenched" in China’s law-enforcement and criminal justice systems.
Huang, who has ovarian cancer, now hopes to be resettled in the U.S. with her family.
"I have a number of health problems, and I have two sisters and a nephew there," she said. "There are 10 of my relatives living in the U.S."
"My sister was in touch with me yesterday evening to say that they want me to come over there as soon as possible, and they'll take care of me," Huang said.
While she is in Taiwan, Huang plans to attend a memorial event for the 29th anniversary of the 1989 massacre of civilians by the People's Liberation Army that ended weeks of student protests on Tiananmen Square.
Beijing bans any public commemoration of the bloodshed, which it said was necessary to end a "counterrevolutionary rebellion."
"I am so happy that I will be taking part in the [memorial event for the] June 4, 1989, demonstration here in Taiwan," Huang said. "I wish the Chinese Communist Party would exonerate all of the martyrs of June 4."
Reported by Hsia Chun-mei for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Chung Kwang-cheng for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.