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July 28, 2020 – Starvation. Torture. Forced abortion.
For women who were forcibly repatriated to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and held in detention centres, serious violations were near daily occurrences.
“I barely survived by being fed with five small potatoes. I was extremely hungry. I even ate rice and other leftovers in the water after washing the dishes of prison officers,” said one female detainee recounting her experience from 2016.
“There were beatings,” said another female witness who was held in pre-trial detention in 2014. “There were people who were out for interrogations and had bruises when they returned. They were crying. I was beaten as well. I was first shackled, and was beaten for telling lies even though I was telling the truth. . . There were interrogations every day.”
Women also suffer humiliating and degrading treatment, sometimes amounting to sexual violence at the hands of security and police officials, including during the invasive body searches they are subjected to.
“They searched us in order to find money, and this search was invasive. They searched our body cavities. The different body searches took place every time we were transferred to a new facility.”
Former detainees also described instances of forced abortion.
“Another woman was eight months pregnant. She, along with me and other women were brought to a military hospital. She got an injection which was supposed to kill the foetus. However, the foetus did not come out, so she went through an operation. After the abortion, she was returned to the holding centre without medical treatment.”
These and other testimonies are part of “I still feel the pain…” Human rights violations against women detained in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called the witness accounts and findings in the report shocking and heart-wrenching.
“It is heartbreaking to read these stories of women who fled their country looking to make ends meet, but who ended up being punished. These are women who have often been the victims of exploitation and trafficking who should be taken care of, not detained and subjected to further human rights violations,” she said. “These women have a right to justice, truth and reparation.”
This report is based on various sources of information, including detailed interviews conducted by UN Human Rights with more than 100 women who were subjected to forced repatriation and subsequent detention in the DPRK from 2009 to 2019. These are women who had eventually managed to escape and whom OHCHR interviewed outside of the country.
“Women caught trying to leave the country without official permission, or forcibly repatriated to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea after having done so, have been subjected to serious human rights violations,” the report stated. “The information collected by OHCHR indicates that upon arrest, women are systematically punished for having left their country without permission, detained in inhumane conditions, and subjected to torture and ill-treatment. None of them benefit from essential protections such as the right to a fair trial.”
Leaving the country without permission is considered a crime under domestic DPRK law and those who do so face perilous journeys, the report stated. Many of those who do undertake this journey are women, who either cross the border to engage in trade and exchange or seek to relocate to another country altogether.
Those who are forcibly returned are detained by the Ministry of State Security or the Ministry of People’s Security, where they are sentenced to imprisonment by State officials, often without trial or after proceedings that do not meet international norms and standards for due process and a fair trial.
The report makes several recommendations to the DPRK Government including: ensuring that the right to freedom of movement is guaranteed for all citizens; ceasing the invasive and degrading body searches of detainees; stopping beatings and other ill-treatment during interrogation and to discipline detainees; and redirecting resources to ensure adequate space, food, water and healthcare in places of detention. With all these required steps, the Government is encouraged to increase cooperation with the UN Human Rights Office.