China Pressed to Account for Uighurs’ Fate
The New York Times, December 18, 2010BEIJING — A human rights organization has called on the Chinese government to publicly account for the fate of 20 ethnic Uighurs who were deported to China from Cambodia one year ago as they awaited a determination on their asylum applications with the United Nations.
Until now Beijing has refused to provide any information about the Uighurs — men, boys, a woman and two infants — who were sent back to China on Dec. 19 over the objections of the United States, the European Union and United Nations officials. They were forcibly returned the day before Chinese Vice President Xi Jinpin arrived in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, for a visit that yielded a package of loans and grants worth $1.2 billion.
The Uighurs, who made their way to Cambodia with the help of Christian missionaries, said they were fleeing a crackdown that followed deadly ethnic rioting in the China’s far western Xinjiang region in July 2009. Many of the 197 people dead were Han Chinese migrants killed during two days of violence in the regional capital, Urumqi. An unknown number of Uighurs were also killed or injured in a brief spasm of Han vigilante attacks that followed.
Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people, have long complained about Han migration to the West that they say dilutes their numbers, culture and language. The Chinese government, in turn, often accuses Uighurs of engaging in “separatism” when pressing their demands for expanded religious freedom and political autonomy.
In its only statement to date about the fate of the deportees, the Chinese Foreign Ministry suggested in February that the Uighurs had been tried or were set to face trial. “China is a country ruled by law,” Ma Zhaoxu, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, wrote in response to questions sent by The New York Times. “The judicial authorities deal with illegal criminal issues strictly according to law.”
China has insisted the Uighurs were wanted in connection with the rioting, although they did not publicly provide any evidence of their involvement. In the months that followed the violence in Urumqi, hundreds of Uighurs were detained and at least nine were executed.
Human Rights Watch said they feared that those deported faced torture, long prison terms or worse. “Both China and Cambodia should be held accountable for their flagrant disregard of their obligations under international law,” Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch’s Asia advocacy director, said in a statement.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said 22 people initially applied for asylum in their Phnom Penh office but two disappeared before the group was handcuffed and forced onto a Chinese plane. In their statements, the applicants said they feared harsh punishment if returned to China.
“I can tell the world what is happening to Uighur people, and the Chinese authorities do not want this,” one man, a 27-year-old teacher, wrote. “If returned, I am certain I would be sent to prison.’ ”