SEOUL, Nov. 10 (UPI) -- Human rights groups condemned the South Korean government on Monday over its deportation last week of two North Korean fishermen accused of killing 16 fellow crew members on a boat, saying the move was a "grave violation" of international law and a "shameful decision" that was made in haste.
The two fugitives were sent back to North Korea across the border truce village of Panmunjom on Thursday after being captured by the South Korean navy near the maritime border on Nov. 2.
A joint statement by 20 human rights and civil society organizations that focus on North Korea said the move violates Article 3 of the United Nations Convention against Torture, which forbids governments from returning people to a country that practices torture.
The groups also criticized the opaque process behind the deportations, which were only announced by South Korea's Ministry of Unification after they had occurred.
The government "rushed to a decision with a three-day inquiry, which cannot be long and exhaustive enough to justify an irreversible decision about human lives," the statement read. "Instead of showing clear-cut, hard evidence to prove the murders it alleges, the South Korean government explained that the allegations have been substantiated by an abundance of 'testimonies,' 'circumstantial evidence' and 'information,' which details cannot fully be disclosed."
The deported should have been provided with a lawyer and been allowed "to defend themselves in court in accordance with the principles of due process," the statement added.
The investigation by South Korean authorities concluded that the fugitives had killed the captain of their squid-fishing vessel out of anger at his abusive treatment and then murdered 15 other crew members in an attempt to cover up the crime before fleeing out to sea.
Ministry of Unification spokesman Lee Sang-min said Thursday the North Koreans had applied for asylum but that they were not eligible for protection "as they are offenders of nonpolitical and serious crimes including murder."
Lee added that they could be seen as a threat to South Korean citizens if admitted into the country and that they were not eligible to be recognized as refugees under international law because "they have committed a heinous crime."
Thursday's move was the first time that South Korea has officially deported North Koreans.
The human rights groups behind the statement, which include the Transitional Justice Working Group and the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, claimed that involuntary deportation is "not legally justifiable" since there is no extradition agreement between the two Koreas and no agreed-upon legal process for handling such matters.
The statement called upon North Korea to disclose the current status and future plans for the deported men and urged South Korea's parliament, the National Assembly, to conduct an inquiry into the repatriation process.
"[T]he government authorities who directed or were involved in the illegal deportation of the two fishermen should not be exempt from accountability for North Korean human rights," the statement said. "Moreover, the South Korean government must bear the responsibility of monitoring how North Korea treats these two fishermen."