Cambodian deportation of Muslim Uighurs criticised by UN


PHNOM PENH – Cambodia has deported back to China 20 Muslim Uighurs who fled the country after deadly ethnic violence this year, according to a government official, despite concerns they will face persecution by Beijing.

The Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim ethnic group – members of which were involved in rioting in western China that killed nearly 200 people in July – were smuggled into Cambodia in recent weeks.

They applied for asylum at the United Nations refugee agency office in Phnom Penh. Human rights groups have said they fear for the lives of the Uighurs if they are deported to China.

However, they were deported late on Saturday, foreign ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said yesterday. “We were implementing the immigration laws of the country. They came to Cambodia illegally. We had to apply our immigration law,” he said.

The deportation coincided with a visit to Cambodia yesterday by Chinese vice-president Xi Jinping, who was expected to sign 14 pacts related to infrastructure construction, grants and loans.

The Washington-based Uighur American Association said the 20 would likely face torture and possible execution, citing the case of Shaheer Ali, an Uighur political activist who fled to Nepal in 2000 and was granted refugee status by the United Nations. He was forcibly returned to China from Nepal in 2002 and executed a year later, according to state media.

The United States said the decision would affect international relations with Cambodia and urged China to “uphold international norms” in treatment of the group. “The United States is deeply concerned about the welfare of these individuals, who had sought protection under international law,” the State Department said in a statement.

“The United States strongly opposed Cambodia’s involuntary return of these asylum seekers before their claims have been heard,” it said. “This incident will affect Cambodia’s relationship with the US, and its international standing.”

The UN refugee agency condemned the deportation.

“The forced return of asylum-seekers without a full examination of their asylum claims is a serious breach of international refugee law,” the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement.

Agency spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey said her agency had sent staff to Phnom Penh’s main airport on Saturday to try to physically stop the deportation, but authorities circumvented this by using a military airport.

Two of the original group of 22 Uighurs had disappeared while being transferred around Phnom Penh, Ms McKinsey added.

Beijing has called the asylum seekers criminals, although it has offered no evidence to back up these allegations.

China is Cambodia’s biggest investor, having poured more than $1 billion (€697 million) in foreign direct investment into the country.

Rights groups say Cambodia is flouting a 1951 convention on refugees in which it pledged not to return asylum seekers to countries where they will face persecution.

Cambodia is one of two southeast Asian nations to have signed the convention.

The July 5th riots, which began with protests against attacks on Uighur workers in south China, resulted in the deaths of 197 people, mostly Han Chinese. More than 1,600 were injured, official figures show.

At least eight people have been sentenced to death for murder and other crimes during the rioting, and nine other people have been executed, Chinese state media has reported. – (Reuters)