Group Condemns Cambodia’s 2009 Deportation of 20 Uighurs

On the third anniversary of Cambodia’s forcible deportation of 20 Uighur asylum seekers to China—where four were imprisoned for life and another 13 remain in prison—an advocacy group said Cambodia had broken international law in its treatment of members of the Turkic ethnic group from Northwestern China.

The World Uyghur Congress (WUC), which is based in Munich, Germany, said on Wednesday that Cambodia broke international human rights protocols in sending the asylum seekers back to China, where they were charged with terrorism, illegal travel and the crime of “splittism.”

In China, “splittism” is the word used to describe separatist tendencies.

A pregnant woman and two children among the group of 20 deported from Phnom Penh by police were released in China, but the remaining 17 Uighurs were imprisoned—four of them to life sentences.

The arrests of the asylum seekers in Phnom Penh followed several months after violent clashes between ethnic Han Chinese and ethnic Uighurs—the majority of whom are Muslim—in July 2009, where the WUC said 600 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured.

“Three years ago today, 20 Uyghur refugees were deported to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from Cambodia amidst widespread condemnation after repeated calls of concern for their safety resulting from past evidence of mistreatment of returned refugees and general human rights concerns went unmet,” the WUC said in a statement.

“Those fears were proved to have been warranted as 17 remain detained and sentenced to harsh terms of imprisonment following closed trials lacking any due process, nor meeting accepted international legal norms,” the WUC added.

The government deported the asylum seekers, who had traveled to Phnom Penh to seek protection with the U.N. refugee agency, on the eve of a December 2009 visit to Cambodia by China’s Vice President Xi Jinping, who was promoted to General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party last month.

During Mr. Xi’s visit, the government announced that it had received $1 billion in grants and loans from Beijing. Rights groups said at the time that Cambodia had flouted the 1951 U.N. convention on refugees as well as a separate U.N. protocol on the deportation of refugees.

In the statement Wednesday, WUC President Rebiya Kadeer said: “In spite of repeated calls for Cambodia to take stock of the human rights situation in East Turkestan and the treatment of Uyghur refugees, it continued to extradite these Uyghur refugees in a flagrant abuse of international human rights law, for which no-one has been held to account, both in Cambodia and the PRC.”

Mak Sambath, deputy chairman of the government’s Human Rights Committee, declined to comment on the WUC’s statement or the deportation. At the time in 2009, Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak defended the government’s actions, saying that the group had been “led to Cambodia by the leader of a terrorist group.”

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan also referred to the group as “criminals.”

Earlier this year, Amnesty International confirmed that 16 of the 20 Uighurs deported from Cambodia to China in December 2009 were sentenced together on December 24, 2010, in a trial it deemed “unfair.”

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