BEIJING (AP) — The Chinese government denied Tuesday that the $1.2 billion in aid it gave Cambodia was linked to the deportation back to China of 20 minority Muslim Uighurs who had sought asylum after ethnic violence back home.
A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said the aid package to Cambodia “has no strings attached.”
China had accused the Uighurs of being involved in ethnic rioting in July. Cambodia deported them Saturday night despite protests from the United States and the United Nations, whose refugee agency stationed people at the Phnom Penh airport in an attempt to physically stop it from happening.
In statements to the U.N. refugee agency, the Uighurs said they witnessed and documented the rioting — China’s worst ethnic violence in decades — and that they feared lengthy imprisonment or even the death penalty if they were returned to China.
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who arrived on a previously scheduled visit just hours after the Uighurs left, on Monday gave Cambodia $1.2 billion and also thanked the country for the deportations, a Cambodian government spokesman said.
Cambodia said it was expelling the Uighurs because they had illegally entered the country.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman defended the deportations Tuesday and called the handling of the Uighurs an “internal affair” and saying there were “no strings attached” to the aid package.
“According to my knowledge, some are suspected of criminal cases,” Jiang Yu told a regularly scheduled news briefing. “Public security forces will handle the relevant outlaws. Their whereabouts, I have no information to offer you.”
The United States has said it was “deeply disturbed” by the forcible deportations. State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said the incident would affect Cambodia’s relationship with the United States and its international standing.
The group of Uighurs had made the journey from China’s far west through to Vietnam and then Cambodia with the help of a network of missionary groups. Two Uighurs fled before the group was forced to return to China.
Overseas activist groups say Uighurs in China have been rounded up in mass detentions since the summer’s violence in the Xinjiang region, which has long had tensions between the minority Uighurs and the majority Han Chinese.
China has handed down at least 17 death sentences over the rioting.