China to Release S. Korean Photographer

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By: Jay DeFoore

(Photo District News) After serving 14 months of a two-year sentence in a Chinese prison, South Korean freelance photojournalist Seok Jae-hyun is scheduled to be released on Friday.

A contributor to The New York Times and GEO, Seok was arrested Jan. 18, 2003, while photographing North Korean refugees fleeing China by boat. Chinese authorities accused Seok of human smuggling, a charge he denied, and sentenced him to two years in prison.

Friends, family and colleagues have lobbied for Seok’s release since his arrest. They maintain Seok was merely performing his duties as a journalist and did nothing wrong. Last July, supporters delivered a petition with 15,000 signatures to Chinese officials demanding Seok’s release.

Stephen Gilbert of Resolution217, a human rights organization based in Ontario, Canada, called Seok’s release a pyrrhic victory.

“On the one hand, we’re ecstatic he’s being released from jail, while on the other, we’re as equally outraged he was ever arrested at all,” Gilbert says.

Seok is scheduled to fly out of Qingdao, China March 19 at 3:10 p.m. and arrive at Incheon, South Korea at the Gimpo airport at 5:00 p.m.

Information on Seok’s trial and subsequent appeal have been hard to come by. Seok’s appeal last July was closed to journalists and Soek’s wife Kang was barred from attending. After visiting Seok in October, Kang said he looked depressed and had given up hope.

“Kang said Jae looked emaciated and pale and was covered in a bright red rash he had gotten from using the prison’s communal razor, the only one the 300-plus inmates are given for shaving,” Gilbert told PDN in January.

Chinese president Hu Jintao is scheduled to visit South Korea in May, and some believe Seok’s release may be an attempt by the Chinese authorities to avoid negative PR on the trip.

Seok and Kang are scheduled to attend Resolution217’s Symposium on Press Freedom, to be held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on May 3. The symposium will feature an exhibition of work by photojournalists who were killed or imprisoned in 2003, including Seok; Zahra Kazemi, the Iranian-Canadian photographer beaten to death in Tehran last year; Molly Bingham, an American photojournalist abducted by Iraqi authorities during the war; and Scott Dalton and Ruth Morris, both journalists kidnapped for 11 days by the rebel National Liberation Army (ELN) in Colombia.

The symposium will also raise money for the families of the fallen journalists. More information can be found at the Resolution217 Web site.

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