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S. Korean rights groups slam Laos for deporting N. Korean defectors
SEOUL, May 31 (Yonhap) -- Human rights groups in Seoul strongly denounced the Lao government Friday for handing over nine North Korean defectors to their totalitarian homeland despite fears they could face persecution there.

   The defectors, after being detained for three weeks by Lao immigration authorities, were flown back to North Korea on Tuesday despite Seoul's repeated requests not to repatriate them. They had fled their home country to Laos via China in early May, with the aim of eventually reaching in South Korea.

   "The Lao government, knowing that deported refugees suffer severe punishment in the North, still sent the nine defectors back to the country," the activist groups said in a press conference held in front of the Lao Embassy in central Seoul.

   "The decision clearly goes against international humanitarian agreements, including the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees."

   Echoing growing concerns following the incident that the Southeast Asian country, a major transit point for North Korean defectors, might continue to repatriate other similar refugees, the human rights activists urged the Lao government not to repeat the same decision in the future.

   Lao government officials, in response to South Korea's regret over the repatriation, said Thursday that "the domestic law mandates all illegal immigrants, regardless of their origin, be sent back to their home country," according to South Korean Ambassador Lee Jeong-kwan in Laos.

   Diplomatic sources said that unlike previous cases where the Lao government responded favorably to South Korea's calls regarding North Korean refugees, it came under heavy pressure from Pyongyang this time regarding the nine North Koreans, aged between 15 and 23.