Chinese authorities have sent another two Uyghurs to life imprisonment after Cambodia deported them to China, family members and lawyers said Friday, as more details emerged regarding 21 Uyghur asylum seekers who were forcibly sent home.
News of the sentence came a day after it was reported that two Uyghurs from the same group had been ordered to spend the rest of their life in prison in punishments meted out in secret and described as severe by rights groups.
The four and 12 others, who were ordered jailed up to 20 years, faced charges of splittism, terrorism and illegal travel.
The Uyghurs from China’s volatile Xinjiang region had fled to Cambodia more than two years ago and sought asylum in the Southeast Asian state following ethnic riots involving the minority Uyghurs and majority Han Chinese in the region'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 lethal force against Uyghur demonstrators during the riots.
Families and lawyers of the deported Uyghurs who spoke to RFA could only identify three of the four who were sentenced to life imprisonment—Mutellip Mamut, Nurahmet Kudret and Islam Urayim.
Among the others in the group—four were sent to 20 years in jail, four received 17 years imprisonment, and another four received 16-year sentences.
The sentences took effect on September 2011 after swift verdicts handed out in a trial conducted on Dec. 24, 2010 and then confirmed by China's top court, legal sources said.
The fate of two more Uyghurs who were detained after deportation to China was not known amid concerns by rights groups over their whereabouts as at least one of them has serious health problems.
Three others from the deported group—a woman and two children—were released.
Details on the fate of the 21 surfaced only this week when RFA began interviewing families and lawyers in Xinjiang even though the Uyghurs were deported on Dec. 19, 2009.
Lawyers hired by some of the Uyghurs indicated that the trials were conducted without the presence of their immediate families or relatives and that the accused were brought in and taken out of the court with their faces covered.
The lawyers themselves were prevented from fully defending their clients.
Lawyer Tunisa Hesen, whose client Memettursun Omer was given a 20-year sentence, said that she could not divulge what was discussed in the trial.
Hesen, 55, who works for a local government department dealing in legal issues, said that her department drafted her court remarks one day before the trial, implying that she was not allowed to represent her client effectively.
"We are not allowed to say,'He is not guilty' in such state security cases," said another lawyer Nasirjan, 32, a lecturer at the Kashgar Pedagogical University and whose client Helil Abdugheni got a 16-year jail sentence.
Families of the clients expressed dissatisfaction over the conduct of the two lawyers, saying they were paid adequate fees but did not provide them with any key information.
Unlike Hesen and Nasirjan, who were hired by their clients, the Uyghurs who received life sentences had lawyers appointed by the court, according to legal sources.
Families of the Uyghurs said more than 10 families went to the court to attend the trial but were not allowed to witness the proceedings.
"The courtyard was blocked and they stayed on outside and waited until the proceedings ended," one family member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. "They were not able to see their loved ones."
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. Beijing says some Uyghurs belonged to militant groups allied with Al-Qaeda and operating in Xinjiang.
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 that Beijing had assured the international community that the deported Uyghurs would be dealt with transparently upon their return.
The U.S. State Department expressed concern Friday over the sentences that were imposed on the deported Uyghurs.
We're seeking to confirm these reports with the Chinese," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.
Washington "has repeatedly called on the Chinese government to provide information on the whereabouts of all 20 of the Uyghur asylum seekers," Nuland said.
It has also asked Beijing "to allow access to them by international agencies and to treat them in accordance with international human rights obligations and commitments," Nuland said.
The World Uyghur Congress (WUC) said that Uyghurs forcibly returned to China "are in extreme risk of torture, detention and enforced disappearance."
The Uyghurs had fled to Cambodia 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.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA's Uyghur service. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.