PHNOM PENH—Reporters and United Nations officials waited for several hours at the airport here to see whether Cambodia would repatriate at least 20 ethnic minority Uyghurs who entered the country seeking political asylum in the wake of deadly ethnic clashes in northwestern China.
Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Koy Kuong, said in an interview 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.
Witnesses said a United Nations car was stationed at the airport as of early Saturday. But Shanghai Airlines flight 834, which was expected to transport the group, departed Phnom Penh without the Uyghurs on board, witnesses said.
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping is scheduled to visit Cambodia Dec. 20-22. 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.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which operates an office here and where the Uyghurs initially sought protection, declined to comment and referred queries to the UNHCR office in Bangkok, where phones rang unanswered Friday.
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.
Aid workers here said earlier that 20 Uyghurs, in a group that originally numbered 22, had been transferred to the custody of the Interior Ministry and would leave Cambodia imminently on a commercial flight to Shanghai.
The fate of the remaining two Uyghurs—a distinct ethnic minority concentrated in China’s northwestern-most corner—wasn’t immediately clear.
In Beijing, China’s Foreign Ministry told a news conference that the Uyghurs are suspected of criminal activities and that the “relevant departments” are investigating them.
“China’s stance is very clear: the international refugee protection system shouldn’t become a shelter where criminals stay to escape legal punishment,” a spokeswoman said.
This week, Amnesty International sent a letter to Sar Kheng, Cambodia's deputy prime minister and interior minister, saying that Cambodia is bound by a 1951 convention barring signatory countries from forcibly returning refugees to nations where they could face torture or other ill treatment.
“Since September 2001, Amnesty International has documented cases in which Uyghur asylum-seekers who were forcibly returned to China were detained, reportedly tortured, and in some cases sentenced to death and executed,” Sam Zarifi, Asia-Pacific director of Amnesty International, wrote in the open letter.
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.
Rebiya Kadeer, president of the World Uyghur Congress, urged other governments to intervene and stop the deportations, saying members of the group could face execution in China.
"I couldn’t believe my ears," Kadeer, a former political prisoner in China, said in an interview.
"The Cambodian government knows that China is already executing people who took part peacefully in the July 5 demonstrations in Urumchi, and now they are deporting these 22 asylum-seekers from Cambodia," she said.
"I urgently and strongly call upon every democratic country in the world to stop this ongoing tragedy."
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.
T. Kumar, with Amnesty International in Washington, said the international human rights group will press U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration to exert pressure on Cambodia.
Administration officials in Washington couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
“Our main concern is that definitely they are going to be arrested and tortured, and then possibly some will be executed,” Kumar said. “That’s the record of China with the Uyghurs.”
“[Cambodia] is so close to China," he added. "Cambodia, Laos, and countries like that would send [the Uyghurs] back. But this is against international norms.”
Original reporting by RFA's Khmer and Uyghur services. Khmer service director: Sos Kem. Uyghur service directior: Dolkun Kamberi. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.