Updated at 12:00 p.m. ET on 2013-09-12
A dozen Vietnamese followers of the Falun Gong spiritual sect were detained and severely beaten by authorities in China during a trip to the country, according to group members.
Six of them were deported back home this week while the others are believed to be held in a secret location in the Chinese capital, according to those who have returned to Vietnam.
The 12 had traveled together in July to meet with fellow Falun Gong practitioners in China, where the sect is banned as an “evil cult."
After nearly two months, they were rounded up by police in Beijing on Friday and driven outside the city where they were bound and held in a basement, the returnees said.
The six women in the group were put on a plane back to Vietnam on Saturday after being held overnight, but the six men were kept behind and have not been heard from since, they said.
“They beat the men very cruelly all over their bodies until they bled,” one of the women told RFA’s Vietnamese Service on her return to Hanoi.
“We asked to see them before we left but they did not let us. They forced us to go, saying they had bought our tickets already,” she said, identifying herself only as Hong.
The women who were sent back reported their plight to the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry and the Chinese embassy in Hanoi on Wednesday, calling for help to get the six men —identified as Nguyen Doan Kien, Pham Xuan Giao, Vu Hong To, Nguyen Van Kiem, and Pham Van Hao—freed and bring them home.
Held in a basement
According to the Hong, police had come to the group’s guesthouse in Beijing—where they had been staying after traveling through several Chinese cities since leaving the Vietnamese border town of Mong Cai two months ago—and taken the group members away without any explanation.
“They beat us until we passed out,” she said. “They put is in a car and took us to a basement somewhere far from the city.”
They were held without food or water and huddled together for warmth while the guards kicked and beat them, she said.
One of the women in the group, a 25-year-old, was kept bound and gagged, she said.
“They guarded us very strictly, with four to six policemen for every two or three of us.”
On Saturday afternoon, the six women—including the 25-year-old, two middle-aged women, and three elderly women—were driven to the airport by “police escorts” in plain clothes and deported back to China, Hong said.
“I said, ‘No, we need to see a lawyer and representatives from our embassy, because you can’t just arrest us and beat us like that and then send us home,’” she said.
They were taken to the airport after being told that a lawyer and embassy representatives would meet them at the airport and that their belongings would be returned to them, she said.
The six men did not have the paperwork needed to go with them and would be sent back to Vietnam later, the women were told.
But the women were put on the Vietnamese Airlines flight without meeting with any representatives, she said.
She added that they had arrived in Hanoi without their belongings, including money, despite promises by the Chinese authorities that they would be put on the flight with them.
Calls for investigation
“We still have pain from the beatings. But the most important thing now is the other six people stuck in China,” Hong said, after reporting the case to officials in Hanoi.
The six women went to the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday along with four other Falun Gong followers to file a report on their ordeal, Hong said, adding that an official told them he would investigate the case and respond soon.
Officials at the Chinese Embassy initially refused to help with the case, telling the group to fly to Beijing to report their complaints to the Vietnamese Embassy there, she said.
But after the group waited outside the embassy, a Chinese official who drove up in a car with guards spoke to them and accepted their documents about the case.
“He took them and said he will send them to China,” Hong said.
The man, whom the group believed to be a senior Chinese diplomat, took down their numbers but refused to give them his or tell them his name, Hong said.
Before the group arrived at the Chinese Embassy, a representative from the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry had already visited the mission to inform Chinese officials about their case, she said.
An official at the Vietnamese Embassy in Beijing contacted by RFA said their representatives had not been informed of the case.
“We have not heard anything about this,” the official said. “If we hear anything we will work with the Chinese side to resolve this case.”
They are working to inform families of the six men about what had happened to them.
The wife of Nguyen Doan Kien, one of the men, told RFA she had received information about his case from the deported women and her family is working through diplomatic channels to bring him back home.
Group members had said earlier this week they were trying to get in touch with the family members of the other five men.
Falun Gong originated in China and has a growing following in Vietnam.
Falun Gong practitioners in China have been sentenced to long prison terms, faced arbitrary detention, and been held in hospitals and in “re-education through labor” facilities since Beijing launched a crackdown on the movement over a decade ago.
Chinese authorities have also put pressure on other governments to restrict Falun Gong gatherings overseas.
Official media in Vietnam, where the government strictly controls all religious activity, describe Falun Gong as an illegal, reactionary sect.
In 2011, Vietnam jailed two Falun Gong practitioners for beaming radio broadcasts into China.
Reported by An Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included some quotes that were misattributed.