NANNING, China – A Chinese court sentenced a Japanese man to eight months in prison Monday for helping North Koreans who entered China to go to a third country, but said his prison term will end Aug. 9 to take into account the time he has spent in custody.
The Intermediate People’s Court in Chongzuo said Takayuki Noguchi, 32, will be deported after his prison term ends. It also fined Noguchi 20,000 yuan (260,000 yen). He is expected to return to Japan by the end of August if he does not appeal the ruling.
It is the first time for a Japanese national to be indicted and convicted in connection with assisting North Koreans fleeing their country.
Noguchi has been detained since he was arrested by Chinese authorities on Dec. 10 near the Vietnamese border in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, when he was with two North Koreans who were previously residents of Japan.
Noguchi, who belongs to the Japanese nongovernmental organization Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, was charged with assisting in smuggling people out of China. The group’s secretary general, Hiroshi Kato, was detained by Chinese authorities for a week from late October to early November 2002 before being deported.
Noguchi’s trial began May 9 following an indictment in April.
In handing down Monday’s ruling, the court said the people Noguchi was assisting had not been officially recognized as refugees.
“Humanitarianism must be observed in ways that follow the rules of the relevant country,” the court said.
It added that it handed down a light penalty to Noguchi because he had pleaded guilty.
Assisting in people-smuggling carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison but can be raised to 10 years in cases that are determined to be malicious.
In Japan, the ruling was criticized by NGOs as being too strict.
Kato of Life Funds for North Korean Refugees charged that Noguchi’s arrest itself was an unjust suppression of activities aimed at assisting North Koreans seeking asylum, seekers, and added that the contents of the ruling were also unforgivable.
Lee Young Hwa, an assistant professor at Kansai University and a representative of the NGO Rescue the North Korean People Urgent Action Network (RENK), said the ruling could be seen as a warning to all Japanese NGOs involved in similar work.
“Chinese authorities will probably step up their efforts to crack down not only on fleeing North Koreans, but on the NGOs as well,” he said.
Masaharu Nakagawa, a lawmaker of the Democratic Party of Japan, said people fleeing from North Korea should be treated as refugees.
“If they are sent back to their homeland, their lives may be in danger.”