A Chinese diplomat who quit his consular post last month and demanded asylum in Australia will not be sent home, a senior minister said yesterday, as Australian Prime Minister John Howard insisted burgeoning trade ties with Beijing would not influence the case.
Chen Yonglin (陳用林), the former first secretary at the Chinese consulate in Sydney, has been in hiding since his initial request for asylum was rebuffed by immigration officials late last month.
Australian officials have refused to say whether Chen would be granted a protection visa, sparking charges from opposition parties that the government was putting growing trade relations with China before human-rights concerns in dealing with the diplomat.
Chen, 37, who also wants asylum for his wife and six-year-old daughter, has said he will be persecuted if returned to Beijing and would rather die than be forced to continue in his work back home.
But Health Minister Tony Abbott, a senior member of Howard's Cabinet, said yesterday that Chen would not be forced to return to China against his will.
"Mr. Chen is in Australia, he is being dealt with in accordance with the ordinary process of Australian immigration law, and he is at no risk of being sent back to China," Abbott said.
Speaking to reporters in Sydney, Howard said that Chen's case had nothing to do with Canberra's relationship with Beijing, now at its closest point after the two countries' agreed in April to work towards a free-trade agreement.
The Australian Greens, who are providing Chen with legal assistance, said the government would prefer the diplomat applied for a protection visa rather than the rarely granted territorial asylum -- for fear of offending China.
"I have no doubt that in their conversations with the Chinese embassy and in trying to play this down with the Chinese government, they [the government] feel it will be less of an affront to China if some other form of visa is offered," Greens Senator Bob Brown told ABC radio.
In a letter to the government in which he appeals for political asylum, Chen said he was tormented by nightmares during the four years he worked at the consulate, where his main job was monitoring Chinese dissidents, including the Falun Gong meditation group.
"My spirit is severely distressed for my sin of working for the unjustified authority in somewhat evil way, and my hair turns white quickly in the last four years for frequent nightmares," Chen wrote.
"If I return to China, I may continue to be in charge of Falun Gong affairs for my experience in dealing with Falun Gong, and I would rather die than be forced to do so," he wrote.
Chen, who quit his post weeks before he was due to return to China, said he feared his replacement would discover that he had been helping members of Falun Gong, which the Chinese government has termed an "evil cult," and would be persecuted as a result.
He wrote that Falun Gong "may be a cult but its practitioners are a social vulnerable group and innocent people. They need help but no prosecution."
Australian intelligence officers are investigating claims made by Chen, and by a second Chinese man seeking asylum who said he was a member of China's security forces, that Beijing has some 1,000 spies and informants in Australia.
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