PHNOM PENH—Cambodia may not repatriate a group of asylum-seekers if they are to face capital punishment in China, a Cambodian spokesman said.
Khieu Kanharith, government spokesman and minister of information, said in an interview that the fate of the 22 ethnic Uyghurs hinges on whether and how the Chinese government intends to punish them in connction with deadly ethnic riots in July.
“There are several issues [to consider],” Khieu Kanharith said.
“For a criminal issue we would send them back. But for a political issue we would consider differently,” he said. “For a criminal issue, if it is serious to the point that they would have to be executed, we might not send them back because we don’t have capital punishment [in Cambodia],” he said.
The minister said that no decision had been made because the Cambodian government has yet to be contacted by the Chinese Embassy.
Smuggled into Cambodia
Twenty-two Uyghurs—a predominantly Muslim minority concentrated in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR)—have sought protection from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, according to Uyghur sources in Asia, who asked not be to named.
The Uyghurs are currently in the care of international Catholic organization the Jesuit Refugee Service, which declined to comment on the status of the group.
They fear being returned to China, which has close ties with Cambodia, Uyghur sources said.
This group, which includes two young children, was smuggled across the border from Vietnam into Cambodia, they said.
The UNHCR has no offices in Vietnam, so anyone seeking asylum as a refugee must find a way into Cambodia, where it does operate.
UNHCR and Cambodian officials in Phnom Penh declined to comment on the case, although it has been learned that the UNHCR has met with the Uyghurs several times in small groups.
Repeated calls to the U.S. Embassy during working hours went unanswered.
According to a statement by the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer and the organization’s general secretary Dolkun Isa are to meet officials at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva to discuss the Uyghur case in Cambodia.
Beijing accuses Kadeer of fomenting the July 5 violence in the XUAR capital, Urumqi, which was sparked after a peaceful protest about the deaths of Uyghur migrants in a factory in southern China turned into clashes with police.
Kadeer has accused the authorities of firing on unarmed protesters in Urumqi, sparking days of retaliatory rioting, burning, and mob violence from both Uyghur and Han Chinese ethnic groups in the city.
Clashes first erupted between Han Chinese and ethnic Uyghurs on July 5, and at least 200 people were killed, by the government’s tally.
According to Uyghur sources in Asia, China has tightened its southeastern border after several groups of Uyghurs managed to bribe their way into Vietnam and then Cambodia to avoid possible detention for allegedly taking part in July 5 ethnic riots.
The sources said Chinese authorities have 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.
A Chinese court sentenced three Uyghurs to death Friday for their alleged involvement during the rioting, bringing the number of death sentences in connection with the incident to 17.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said it has documented the disappearances of 43 men and boys in the Xinjiang region, but that the actual number of disappearances is likely far higher.
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 Chea Sotheacheat and Vuthy Huot for RFA’s Khmer service. Khmer service director: Sos Kem. Translated by Sos Kem. Additional reporting by RFA's Uyghur service. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.