PHNOM PENH—Cambodian authorities have returned to China a group of ethnic Uyghurs who had sought asylum here, despite international concern that they could face torture and execution for allegedly taking part in deadly ethnic riots in China this year.
Cambodian Interior Ministry spokesman Lt. Gen. Khieu Sopheak said 20 Uyghurs —a distinct ethnic minority concentrated in China’s northwestern-most corner— were put on a special plane sent from China that left Phnom Penh International Airport late Saturday.
“They are going back to China,” he said.
Beijing has called the asylum seekers “criminals” without offering evidence to support the charge.
Rights groups, which urged Phnom Penh to stop the deportations, say Cambodia is bound by a 1951 convention on refugees pledging not to return asylum-seekers to countries where they will face persecution.
The move came a day before Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping visits Cambodia as part of a four-country tour.
Cambodia is expected to sign 14 agreements with China during Xi's visit related to infrastructure construction, grants, and loans, Reuters reported.
Cambodia has already received more than U.S. $1 billion in foreign direct investment from China, which in October agreed to provide U.S. $853 million in loans to the impoverished country for dams, infrastructure, and irrigation projects.
Call to stop
The United States, the United Nations, and human rights groups had urged Cambodia to stop the deportation.
“We are deeply disturbed by the reports that the Cambodian government might forcibly return this group of Uyghurs without the benefit of a credible refugee status determination process,” U.S. Embassy spokesman John Johnson in Phnom Penh said earlier.
Washington had no immediate reaction to the Uyghurs’ return.
Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Koy Kuong, said in an interview Friday that Phnom Penh had determined the Uyghurs had entered the country illegally and would be returned to China.
“All 20 [Uyghurs] illegally entered Cambodia, because they have no immigration papers, no visa. Therefore they violate Cambodia's 1994 immigration law. They have to be deported, because they are illegal immigrants,” Koy Kuong said.
Uyghur sources said the Uyghur asylum-seekers fear detention, torture, and possible execution in China for allegedly taking part in deadly ethnic riots in July in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
China has meanwhile tightened its southeastern border, Uyghur sources say, and has detained 31 Uyghurs since Sept. 15 in the southern cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou and in the central city of Kunming, either for trying to flee the country or for allegedly aiding others in fleeing China.
The Chinese government has detained hundreds of Uyghurs, and at least 43 Uyghur men have disappeared in the wake of ethnic violence that erupted in Urumqi on July 5, according to Human Rights Watch, which says the actual number of disappearances is likely far higher.
Nearly 200 people were killed in the clashes, by the Chinese government’s tally. Twelve people have since been sentenced to death in connection with the violence.
Police have meanwhile detained more than 700 people in connection with the unrest, according to earlier state news reports.
Uyghurs, a distinct and mostly Muslim ethnic group, have long complained of religious, political, and cultural oppression by Chinese authorities, and tensions have simmered in the Xinjiang region for years.
Original reporting by RFA's Khmer and Uyghur services and by news agencies. Khmer service director: Sos Kem. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.