Laos has deported seven Muslim Uyghurs who fled China following ethnic riots last year, raising concerns over the plight of Uyghur asylum seekers forced to return home where they face possible persecution.
The Laotian authorities arrested and expelled Memet Eli Rozi, 34, his wife Gulbahar Sadiq, 28, and their five children in March this year, the wife told RFA from Ghulja city in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where she currently lives.
Until now, rights groups had been in the dark about the fate of Memet Eli Rozi, among a group of 22 Uyghurs who had fled to and sought asylum in Cambodia.
The Cambodian government expelled 20 of them to China in December 19, 2009 despite pleas from the U.N. refugee agency. Another Uyghur from the group has resettled in a third country.
As his campatriots were held by Cambodian authorities, Memet Eli Rozi fled to Laos, where he asked his wife and five children to join him from Guangzhou city in southern China.
They were apprehended by Laotian police and deported to China on the day that they arrived in Laos, in March this year, Gulbahar Sadiq said.
"A few uniformed persons stopped us and asked for our passports and visa. We were unable to show them any documents. They sent us back to Mengla county in Yunnan province," she said.
"After three days, Xinjiang’s police came to Mengla and interrogated us. We were held there for 32 days. I lived with my five children in one room, and my husband was detained in other room at the same yard," Gulbahar said.
The Chinese authorities sent her and the children to her Ghulja hometown and continued to hold her husband.
"Later I learned that they sent my husband to the Kashgar prefecture detention center."
The fate of the deported asylum seekers is unclear, rights groups said, adding that they were likely to face persecution by the Chinese authorities.
Gulbahar Sadiq said she was worried about her husband's health, as he had still not recovered from surgery on his arm, where three metal plates inserted by surgeons remain embedded following a traffic accident before he fled to Cambodia.
"The metal plates should have been removed in February this year. According to the doctor, if they are not taken out on time, not only his arm but his life could be in danger," she said.
She said that she went to Kashgar and spoke to judicial and government officials, but that they had told her that Memet Eli Rozi cannot be released until his trial is held.
"Now, about 10 months have already passed. I don’t know how my husband is, or whether he is alive or dead. I could not hear one word from him, and I could not send him one word. Where is the humanity in this?,” she asked.
Gulbahar also said that her family now faced acute financial problems and that she has asked her children to drop out of school as they have no source of income.
"We are depending on help from a few of our friends, but I'm not sure how long this will continue."
Tensions between the mainly-Muslim Uyghurs of Xinjiang and China's dominant Han group have been growing in recent years. Millions of Han have moved to the region in recent decades.
In July 2009, ethnic unrest in Xinjiang left nearly 200 people dead, according to official figures.
Meanwhile, the Uyghur American Association has asked Beijing to shed light on the whereabouts, condition, and legal status of the Uyghurs who were deported, in order "to ensure their safety and well-being."
The international community should "express concern about their situation and insist that they be treated according to international human rights standards," the association said in a statement prepared for release on Thursday ahead of the one-year anniversary of the deportation of the Uyghurs from Cambodia.
The association said it feared "they have likely faced severe persecution, including possible imprisonment, torture, and execution."
“Scores of young Uyghurs have fled China since July 5, 2009, in order to escape the intense repression in their homeland, and it is fortunate that no Uyghur has been deported from the Western countries where they are seeking asylum,” said Uyghur democracy leader Rebiya Kadeer.
"However, it is vital that Western nations continue to press China for information about the 20 Uyghurs deported from Cambodia, and that they recognize the extreme danger that exists for any Uyghur asylum seekers who are sent back to China," she said.
Christian aid network
Beijing considers all Uyghurs who flee China as criminals, regardless of the evidence, Rebiya Kadeer said.
The 22 Uyghurs had initially sought protection from the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, after having escaped China through a network of Christian aid groups.
Officials had not finished reviewing their cases when they were handcuffed and forcefully taken from UNHCR protection by Cambodian authorities.
Human rights group Amnesty International said it was "extremely concerned about the plight of the Uyghur refugees who have been forcibly returned to China."
"We are concerned that some may face execution, as Amnesty International has documented the execution of Uyghur political prisoners in China," said T. Kumar, Amnesty's advocacy director in Washington. "Xinjiang is the only place in China where they execute Uyghur political prisoners."
Kumar has asked U.S. President Barack Obama to raise the issue of the protection of the returned asylum seekers during his talks next month with Chinese President Hu Jintao.
"We meanwhile appeal to the U.N. bodies to immediately intervene and make representations with the Chinese authorities about their welfare. We are extremely disturbed by the trend of countries which neighbor China being involved in handing back Uyghurs who fled China due to persecution," he said.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur service. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.