HONG KONG—China is defending its deportation of 20 ethnic minority Uyghurs who had fled to Cambodia in the wake of deadly ethnic rioting, as the United States voices “deep concern” over the move.
The ethnic Uyghurs sought asylum in Cambodia following deadly ethnic riots this summer in China’s far western region of Xinjiang. China says they are suspected criminals.
They were deported back to China on Saturday despite international protests and fears that they could face trial, torture, and execution in China.
“In line with immigration law, Cambodia has in recent days deported 20 Chinese citizens who illegally entered their country,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in a faxed statement. “The Chinese side received the above-mentioned people according to usual practice.”
Jiang didn’t indicate where the Uyghurs were or whether they had been charged with any crime upon their return to China.
The U.S. State Department said Sunday it was “deeply disturbed” by the move, which may have violated Cambodia’s international obligations to asylum-seekers.
Washington “is deeply concerned about the welfare of these individuals, who had sought protection under international law," State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said.
“The United States strongly opposed Cambodia’s involuntary return of these asylum seekers before their claims have been heard. This incident will affect Cambodia’s relationship with the U.S. and its international standing,” Duguid said in a statement.
He urged Beijing “to uphold international norms and to ensure transparency, due process and proper treatment of persons in its territory.”
Ethnic rioting in July between Uyghurs and the majority Han Chinese was China’s worst communal violence in decades. The Chinese government says the violence left nearly 200 people, mostly Han, dead.
China has handed down at least 17 death sentences over the rioting. Police have meanwhile detained more than 700 people in connection with the unrest, according to earlier state news reports.
The United States, the United Nations, and human rights groups had urged Cambodia to stop the deportation. And in statements given to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and seen by the Associated Press, several of the Uyghur asylum-seekers voiced fears they would be imprisoned or executed upon their return.
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.
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.
Kadeer speaks out
Rebiya Kadeer, president of the World Uyghur Congress and the Uyghur American Association, said in a commentary Monday that the deportations signify “China’s increasing ability to resist international pressure regarding its human-rights violations.”
“Governments of countries neighboring China are reluctant to take any action that would displease Chinese authorities, leaving Uyghurs nowhere to flee,” Kadeer wrote in The Wall Street Journal.
Kadeer, a former political prisoner in China, called on governments “committed to the preservation of human rights” to press Beijing over the case.
“During my time in a Chinese prison, my jailers often told me the world did not care about me or the Uyghurs’ struggle for freedom, but my treatment did improve when officials from the U.S. and other democratic countries campaigned for my release,” she wrote.
“If there is to be any hope for the safety and well-being of these Uyghur asylum-seekers, it is vital that world powers continue to press China regarding their welfare.”
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.