TAIPEI, Taiwan — Jail them, hide them or grant them asylum? Taiwan is having trouble figuring out just what to do with two Chinese dissidents who sought refuge here after years of repression on the mainland.
Taiwan's rather chilly reception for pro-democracy activists Yan Peng, 41, and Chen Rongli, 36 -- the two were put in jail for months upon arrival -- has led some to question the government's commitment to democracy. The men were released last month and transferred to a secret location in Taiwan, but their status remains unclear.
"It's quite ironic that these guys escaped from Chinese jail, came to Taiwan, then found themselves imprisoned again," said Chang Fei-lan, development director with the Taiwan Assn. for Human Rights. "We're especially puzzled because so many high-ranking Taiwanese government officials were themselves dissidents during Taiwan's martial law days. We don't understand how they could have this attitude."
Taiwan's human rights record is sound, officials counter, but Yan and Chen's cases require special handling given the island's unique legal status and adversarial relationship with China.
"We've had to examine whether the two are democracy dissidents or actually spies," said Jeff Yang, legal expert with the Taiwanese government's Mainland Affairs Council.
China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and believes the island does not have the same right to accept refugees accorded to a sovereign state.
The cases have put Taiwan in something of a bind. The two men might face further imprisonment or even the death penalty if sent back to China. But tensions across the Taiwan Strait could rise even further if the island's government granted them asylum.
Taiwan hopes a third country, such as the United States or Canada, will take the dissidents off its hands, and it is helping Yan and Chen seek asylum, although so far without success.
Yan and Chen were released Jan. 25 after seven and 11 months, respectively, in Chinglu Detention Center in Taiwan. They reportedly are being housed in a secret location at their own request, fearing Beijing agents will come after them.
Yan arrived in Taiwan in June after serving 18 months in prison. He had been convicted of violating China's broadly worded national security laws after helping fellow democracy activists set up websites and communicate with the outside world.
Yan had been released by Chinese authorities in January 2003 and subsequently was closely monitored by police in the city of Qingdao. But he developed a plan, human rights activists say. Every few weeks he slipped away from his minders for a day or two and then reappeared. Eventually they got used to this pattern.
In June, Yan used one of those opportunities to travel to the coastal city of Xiamen, where he paid smugglers to take him to Quemoy, a nearby Taiwanese island.
Yan assumed that he was home free but was soon picked up by Taiwanese authorities, charged with illegal entry and placed in detention. There he met Chen, who had slipped across the strait after serving eight years in a Chinese prison under the national security laws for trying to start a pro-democracy party.
Activists on the mainland say the Taiwanese government should do more for the pair.
"I think Taiwan should provide asylum for the two," said Xu Guang, a pro-democracy dissident recently released after serving five years on subversion charges. "Taiwan has political democracy. It's a symbol, a model for many on the mainland and a source of encouragement for activists here."
Seventy well-known activists living in the West, including Tiananmen Square dissidents Han Dongfang and Wang Dan, signed a petition late last year to highlight the predicament of Yan and Chen. "It's ironic; they were just looking for freedom," Wang, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., said on a recent visit to Taipei.
Legal experts say Taiwan's unique international status complicates its ability to deal with refugees or those seeking political asylum. But Chang, of the Taiwan rights group, said a lack of political will, rather than legal impediments, is the real barrier to passage of legislation.
"They really need such a law," she said. "Not just for China cases, but North Koreans and those fleeing Southeast Asia."
Most of those fleeing China are quietly turned back at the border by authorities in Quemoy, experts say. Human rights groups have asked the government to change that policy, particularly when those involved face persecution back home.
Taiwanese officials counter that it's too difficult to verify dissident claims.
Activists in touch with the two men say Yan has friends in the U.S. and would like to settle there. Chen initially sought permanent residency in Taiwan, they add, but after his extended period in jail would be happy to go almost anywhere. Taiwanese officials are noncommittal about what they'll do if no state agrees to take the two.
The opposition Nationalist Party has found political ammunition in such cases, arguing that activists fleeing the mainland fared better when the party ruled Taiwan.
But Richard Kagan, an East Asian history professor at Hamline University in Minnesota, said Taiwan had legitimate reasons for holding the two dissidents for a while. Few governments in Asia, including Japan, have refugee laws, he added.
"Every fishing boat would come over to Taiwan and they'd be inundated," he said.
Yin Lijin in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.