The chief of police in Ratanakkiri province on Monday denied that authorities arrested 36 Montagnards, who the U.N. and local villagers say were deported to Vietnam last week while attempting to reach Phnom Penh to apply for asylum.
Wan-Hea Lee, country representative for the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said on Sunday that the group was arrested and deported on Wednesday.
An ethnic Jarai villager, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the group was arrested in the early hours of Friday morning in Ratanakkiri’s Kon Mom district. The villager, who had been aiding the Montagnards since their arrival, said another local Jarai man was also arrested as he attempted to lead the group to Phnom Penh.
On Monday, however, Ratanakkiri police chief Nguon Koeun denied that the Montagnards—an indigenous group from Vietnam’s Central Highlands—were arrested by officers in the province.
“We have not arrested these 36 people,” Mr. Koeun said. “The information about the arrests is not true.”
Asked if police were searching for any Montagnards in the province, Mr. Koeun said, “I don’t know,” then hung up on a reporter.
Provincial spokesman Moeung Sineath said that he had not been told whether the 36 were arrested.
“But I think that our Ratanakkiri provincial authorities did not arrest those people, including the Khmer Jarai villager,” he said.
Mr. Sineath said last week that Lumphat district police arrested four other Montagnards and passed them to Vietnamese authorities on February 24.
Asked whether Cambodia had handed over the Montagnards to Vietnam, the deputy spokeswoman for Vietnam’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, Pham Thu Hang, would not say.
“Relevant agencies of Vietnam are verifying the information,” Ms. Hang said in an email.
“However, it is noted that, like in other countries, those who immigrate illegally will be dealt [with] in accordance with legal regulations of related countries and…international law,” she added.
Since the latest wave of Montagnards began arriving in Cambodia in late October, provincial- and district-level officials in Ratanakkiri have repeatedly said that they were not legitimate asylum seekers and threatened to deport them if they were found.
On Monday, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Cambodia had not deported any Montagnards—and claimed there had never been any in the country.
“We are deporting illegal immigrants only,” General Sopheak said.
“They don’t have documents. We are doing the same as other countries if people come without passports,” he added, before hanging up.
The 1951 Refugee Convention, which Cambodia signed in 1992, explicitly states that asylum seekers may have to break immigration laws and should not be punished for doing so.
Vivian Tan, regional press officer for the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees, said in an email that signatories to the convention are legally bound to abide by it.
“Even if a country has not signed the Convention, refoulement—sending people back to a place where their lives or freedoms could be in danger—is prohibited by customary international law,” Ms. Tan said.
“There is no lawful excuse for the reported deportations,” she added.
Andrea Giorgetta, head of the Asia Desk at the International Federation for Human Rights, also said the deportation of the Montagnards was a clear violation of international law, but that Cambodia would not face any sanctions for ignoring its obligations.
“The refugee convention has no enforcing mechanism so they don’t face anything under it,” Mr. Giorgetta said. “It is unfortunate, but that’s how international law works for the time being.”
All of the Montagnards who have crossed into Cambodia since October have claimed to be escaping religious and political persecution in Vietnam.
Beginning in 2001, thousands of Montagnards fled to Cambodia after Hanoi violently suppressed land- and religious-rights demonstrations. About 2,000 were resettled in the U.S., while the rest were deported.
In 2011, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a scathing report describing how Vietnamese authorities were systematically targeting Montagnard Protestant churches and arresting anyone deemed a threat.
Those arrested were reportedly tortured, the report says.
In an email Monday, Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said it was difficult to assess the circumstances facing the Montagnards in the Central Highlands.
“The reason is that the Vietnam government very strictly controls access to those areas for all foreigners, whether it be UN, diplomats, journalists, or NGOs, and keeps Montagnard communities under close surveillance by the police and security forces,” he said.
“So to put it frankly, many areas of the Central Highlands continue to be in de facto lockdown by state authorities, which helps explain why Montagnards feel they must flee across the border to Cambodia.”