Uighurs who sought asylum in Cambodia are sent back to China

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By Associated Press
Sunday, December 20, 2009

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA -- A group of Muslims who sought asylum in Cambodia after fleeing deadly ethnic rioting in China were sent back home Saturday despite warnings from rights groups who say they face persecution and possibly execution there.

Cambodia has been under intense pressure from China to deport the Uighurs, whom Beijing has called criminals after they fled the country with the help of a secret network of missionaries. The expulsion came a day before Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping visits Cambodia as part of a four-country tour.

An Interior Ministry spokesman, Lt. Gen. Khieu Sopheak, said the 20 members of the Uighur minority had been put on a special plane sent from China that left Phnom Penh International Airport on Saturday night. "They are going back to China," he said.

The United States, the United Nations and human rights groups had urged Cambodia to stop the deportation. A spokeswoman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, said it had not finished evaluating the Uighurs, including two children, for refugee status. She said the agency had stationed people at the airport in an effort to physically prevent the deportation. The plane, however, left from the airport's military area.

"Even if I say something, can we change anything?" Ilshat Hassan, a U.S.-based director of the World Uyghur Congress, said after the deportation. "The UNHCR, the international world, the U.S., everybody who said something that could give us hope. They all failed."

The Uighurs were being deported because it was determined they entered the country illegally, Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong had said earlier. Two other Uighurs who had been with the group are missing, he said.

Some countries have refused to send Uighurs -- such as those released from U.S. detention at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba -- back to China over concerns about retribution and abuse. In a letter to the Cambodian government about the Uighurs, the rights group Amnesty International noted that Shaheer Ali, a U.N.-recognized refugee, was executed after being forced to return to China from Nepal in 2002.

"It is hugely concerning that Cambodian authorities are not giving this group an opportunity to seek asylum, or for authorities to assess their asylum case," Brittis Edman, a Cambodia researcher with Amnesty International, said late Saturday.

A woman answering the phone at China's Foreign Ministry on Saturday night said officials there had no immediate comment on the Uighurs' deportation.

Uighurs say China has long restricted their rights, particularly their practice of Islam.

Tensions between majority Han Chinese and the Turkic Uighurs in far western China exploded into rioting in July, the country's worst communal violence in decades. China says nearly 200 people, mostly majority Han Chinese, were killed.

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