Cambodia sends Uighur asylum-seekers back to China

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A group of Muslims who fled China after deadly ethnic rioting and sought asylum in Cambodia have been sent back home, even though rights groups fear they face persecution there.

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. The flight left Phnom Penh International Airport at about 9:15 p.m. (9:15 a.m. EST, 1415 GMT) Saturday.

“They are going back to China,” he said.

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 United States, the United Nations and human rights groups had urged Cambodia to stop the deportation.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A group of Muslims who fled China after deadly ethnic rioting and sought asylum in Cambodia will be deported, most likely back home, where rights groups fear they will be persecuted, government spokesmen said Saturday.

Interior Ministry spokesman Lt. Gen. Khieu Sopheak said the Uighurs would be expelled sometime in the next week.

But a police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to the release information, said they were set to be deported Saturday night, and that a special plane was being sent from China to transport them.

Khieu Sopheak, spokesmen for the Foreign Ministry and the immigration department all refused to comment on the prospect of them be expelled Saturday night.

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

The United States and United Nations urged Cambodia to stop the deportation. A spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency said it had not finished evaluating the Uighurs, including two children, for refugee status.

Khieu Sopheak would not say where the group of 20 would be sent, but that he assumed “their final destination will be China, where they come from.”

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

Some countries have refused to send Uighurs — such as ones released from U.S. detention at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba — back to China over concerns about retribution and abuse.

“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.

“This group will be particularly vulnerable to torture. Because of those concerns, Cambodia shouldn’t send them back.”

Uighurs say Beijing has long restricted their rights, particularly clamping down on their practice of Islam.

Tensions between majority Han Chinese and the Turkic Uighurs in their traditional homeland in far western China exploded into rioting in July, the country’s worst communal violence in decades. The Chinese government says nearly 200 people, mostly majority Han Chinese, died.

Exile groups say Uighurs have been rounded up in mass detentions since the rioting. China has handed down at least 17 death sentences — mostly to Uighurs — over the violence.

The Uighurs arrived in Cambodia in recent weeks and had initially been in joint custody of the U.N. refugee agency and Cambodian authorities. Khieu Sopheak said they were now under the “sole protection” of the Cambodian government.

Uighur exile groups said daily telephone contact with the Uighurs had been lost.

An evaluation of the Uighurs for possible refugee status had not yet been completed, said Kitty McKinsey, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Bangkok. She said the agency asked Cambodia not to deport the group.

The United States also urged Cambodia not to send the Uighurs back to China.

“We are deeply disturbed by the reports that the Cambodian government might forcibly return this group of Uighurs without the benefit of a credible refugee status determination process,” said U.S. Embassy spokesman John Johnson in Phnom Penh.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said last week the Uighurs were “involved in crimes.” She did not elaborate.

China’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.

Wang Lixiong, a China-based writer on Uighur and Tibetan issues, said the deportation reflected China’s powerful influence in the region. China says it is the top foreign investor in Cambodia.

“When I learned the Uighurs landed in Cambodia, I was pessimistic because Cambodia is a small country that will not be able to stand against China’s pressure,” said Wang.

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