Two Uyghur asylum seekers who were deported back to China by Cambodia have been sentenced to life imprisonment in a punishment imposed in secret by Chinese authorities and described as severe by rights groups.
The duo were among 18 Uyghurs from China’s volatile Xinjiang region who were believed sentenced to various prison terms since Cambodia deported them on December 19, 2009.
The fate of a woman and two infants who were also deported from Phnom Penh is unknown.
This is the first time news on the punishment meted out to the Uyghurs had been revealed.
They had fled to Cambodia and sought asylum in the Southeast Asian state following ethnic riots involving the minority Uyghurs and majority Han Chinese in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi in July 2009.
Some rights groups say the Uyghurs were fleeing persecution because they had witnessed Chinese security forces arresting and using brutal and lethal force against Uyghur demonstrators during riots.
Uyghurs, who form a distinct, Turkic-speaking minority in Xinjiang, say they are subjected to political control and persecution for opposing Chinese rule in their homeland.
Nurahmet Kudret, 35, and Islam Urayim, 32, were sentenced to life in prison by a local court in a trial shrouded in secrecy, family sources and local authorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) told RFA, quoting jail notices they had seen.
Kudret, originally from Gulbagh town in Yarkand county, is serving his life sentence in XUAR Prison No. 3 in Urumqi, and Urayim, originally from Uchturpan county in Aksu prefecture, is serving his term in XUAR Prison No. 1, also in Xinjiang's capital.
It is unclear when the two men were sentenced, or what charges they were convicted of.
Nurahmet Kudret (L) gets life sentence and Musa Muhamad (R) receives 17-year jail term. Photo: RFA
Another Uyghur who was in the same group that was deported home, identified as Musa Muhamad, was sentenced to 17 years in prison, according to relatives of the 25-year-old man.
They said the Kashgar Intermediate Court sentenced him on Oct. 20 last year in a closed trial but that the authorities refused to provide information on the charges against him.
“We received a notice, dated Oct. 27, 2011 from Dahiyen Jail of Turpan prefecture. The notice stated that my son, Musa Muhamad had been transferred to the jail in line with the verdict of the Kashgar Intermediate Court,” Muhamad’s mother Aytursun told RFA.
“This is the first and last official message about my son since he left our home at the end of September 2009,” she said, adding that local authorities had prevented her from visiting her son in jail.
“I don’t know what the families of the other detainees have encountered, but what I'm wondering is how can a government jail its citizens for so long without the knowledge of their families ...?"
“I don’t know whether a trial was in fact held and when or where it was held and whether my son was able to hire a lawyer," she said.
"What I can do to rectify this injustice?,” Aytursun asked. Unknown
The jail terms of 15 other Uyghurs deported to China were not known.
Uyghur exile groups criticized the Chinese authorities for consistently refusing to provide information on the whereabouts and legal status of the jailed Uyghurs.
They said Beijing had assured the international community that the deported Uyghurs would be dealt with transparently upon their return.
The World Uyghur Congress (WUC) said it condemned the sentences in the "harshest possible terms" and said it was concerned that "the other Uyghurs forcibly returned from Cambodia are suffering the same fate."
“We have highlighted again and again, before the international community, that Uyghurs forcibly returned to China are in extreme risk of torture, detention and enforced disappearance, and [the three cases that were cited] prove once again that our fears are well-founded," World Uyghur Congress President and Uyghur human rights activist Rebiya Kadeer said.
"We call once again on international governments to pressure the Chinese authorities to immediately disclose the whereabouts of all the extradited Uyghurs and to provide the charges, if any, that have been made against them,” she said.
The Uyghurs had fled from China in small groups between May and October 2009 and had applied to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for refugee status in Phnom Penh.
Their cases were still under review when they were forcibly returned to China.
A UNHCR official had said then that in his 30-year history in UNHCR, this was the most flagrant violation of the 1951 Convention on Refugees he had experienced. 'Wake-up call'
“The imprisonment of these men, who were forcefully deported from a place of refuge, should serve as a wake-up call to the world about the brutal treatment awaiting Uyghur asylum seekers who are sent back to China," said Uyghur American Association (UAA)President Alim Seytoff.
"The Uyghurs in Cambodia were sent back to the very repression they were attempting to flee. We cannot allow the long arm of Chinese pressure to govern the treatment of Uyghur asylum seekers in other countries.” Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA's Uyghur service. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.