Word has come out of China that the Shandong Superior People's Court in Shandong Province rejected an appeal by South Korean freelance photojournalist Seok Jae-hyun to overturn his conviction on charges of "trafficking in persons."
South Korean photojournalist Nayan Sthankiya, an organizer of the group Resolution 217 which was formed specifically to win the release of Seok from Chinese prison, told News Photographer that Seok remains in detention after the rejected appeal and that the court said he is to finish his two-year sentence. The original verdict on May 22 included a fine of 5,000 Yuans, the confiscation of all his film and cameras, and a lifelong banishment from China at the end of his sentence.
"Seok took the news of the appeal denial very hard," Sthankiya said. "But the Korean Vice Council has said that there is a possibility of an early release, possibly January 16 due to that fact that he is a foreigner and special circumstances." Seok's wife, Kang Hye-won, in Seoul, South Korea, received a telephone call from the South Korean High Consul in Beijing on the night of December 19 with the news that her husband's appeal had been denied.
Seok, whose photographs appeared regularly in The New York Times, was arrested January 18, 2003, while covering North Korean refugees who were attempting to flee China on boats bound for South Korea and Japan. He was working on an ongoing project documenting the plight of North Korean refugees in China, a story that has openly irritated Chinese officials in the past. "There seems to still be some hope that he will be released sooner than later," Sthankiya said. "However, the conviction does mean that he will not be allowed back into China and he will lose all of his camera equipment."
Friends who have been working from the States for Seok's release also took the news with disappointment. "This is horrible news," Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist John Kaplan said. "We'll just have to keep the faith that he'll be released before two years are up." Kaplan, who is now an associate professor at the University of Florida teaching photography and international journalism to undergraduate and graduate students, suggested that it might be time for friends and supporters to start a fund to help Seok's family.
Journalism organizations and human rights groups have been calling for Seok's release ever since his arrest. The hearing was originally set for June, postponed until mid-July, and then further delayed with no explanation. "The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemns the continued detention of Seok," Abi Wright of the CPJ said December 23 in a statement. "By keeping him in prison, China's leaders are threatening all foreign correspondents who report on issues that may be embarrassing for the Chinese government," said CPJ's Deputy Director Joel Simon. "Seok was simply carrying out his journalistic duty and should be released immediately and unconditionally.
"When Seok was arrested, so were a South Korean aid worker, two Chinese nationals, and a North Korean who were present during the boatlift Operation. They were also sentenced to two to seven years on similar charges.
According to Wright at the CPJ, 38 journalists are currently in prison in China, although Seok is the only foreigner on that list. In August, two South Korean journalists, Kim Seung Jin and Geum Myeong Seok, were detained in Shanghai while filming North Korean refugees who were attempting to gain asylum by entering a school run by the Japanese government. Kim and Geum were released and deported from China three weeks later. Meanwhile, Seok remains in prison.