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Uighurs in Cambodia to seek asylum

Rights activists fear group faces punishment by Chinese officials.

ETHNIC Uighurs who witnessed violent demonstrations against the Chinese government earlier this year have travelled to Cambodia in a bid to seek political asylum, rights advocates said Thursday, sparking concerns that the government will ignore their requests and deport them to China.

A group of Muslim Uighurs from China’s restive northwest Xinjiang province, arrived in Cambodia at various points last week, according to Dolkun Isa, secretary general of the World Uighur Congress (WUC), an international organisation of Uighur exile groups.

He said the refugees feared retaliation from Chinese authorities after witnessing clashes between Chinese security forces and Uighur demonstrations in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, on July 5.

“These are Uighurs who faced persecution and had no choice. They have just tried to find a way to leave China,” he said by phone from Germany.

“They came to Cambodia because there is a UN [High Commissioner for Refugees] office and they want to seek asylum.”

Isa said the refugees did not possess passports, and could not divulge their exact number – nor how they managed to enter Cambodia – for fear that they could be deported. The Washington Post has reported that 22 Uighurs are in Cambodia.

“Cambodia has good cooperation with neighbouring countries such as China, and these people’s plight is important to us,” he said. “We are very worried about the lives of these people who have escaped from China.”

WUC Vice President Omar Kanat said that two additional Uighurs have been detained in neighbouring Vietnam, and that five others, who were known to have fled China into Vietnam, have disappeared.

Qian Hai, spokesman of the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh, said he had no information about the Uighurs, but a spokesman for the embassy in Washington, said Beijing wants the Uighurs returned to China.

Sara Colm, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the group is “extremely concerned” about the safety of any Uighurs who may have fled to Cambodia to seek asylum. “If repatriated to China, Uighurs face the very real risk of detention, torture and even execution,” she said by email. “It’s crucial that Cambodia honour its international obligations and protect Uighur asylum seekers, not send them back to China.”

In its formal submission to Cambodia’s current rights review at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, however, HRW noted that Cambodia has often violated its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention by forcibly deporting Vietnamese Montagnards before they were able to apply for refugee status.

The submission also criticised a 2008 UNHCR announcement that Cambodian immigration police, rather than UNHCR itself, would begin screening all asylum seekers in Cambodia besides Vietnamese Montagnards.

“Cambodia has not, to date, provided sufficient protection for registered asylum seekers and recognised refugees, especially from Vietnam and China,” the report stated.

It cited the May 2007 disappearance of Le Tri Tue, a labour union activist from Vietnam, and the August 2002 arrest and assumed deportation of two Chinese asylum seekers as worrying precedents.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong and Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers both said they knew nothing about the Uighur refugees and could not say whether the government would bend to extradition demands from Beijing.

But past government statements lend credence to activists’ fears. On July 11, the Foreign Ministry released a statement supporting China’s actions in suppressing the July violence in Xinjiang, which China says left nearly 200 dead and 1,600 injured.

“The government of China is taking appropriate measures to address the problem and restore social order,” the statement said.

The arrival of the Uighurs in Cambodia comes as a court in Urumqi sentenced five people to death on Thursday for murder and other crimes committed during July’s clashes.

UNHCR officials in Phnom Penh and Bangkok could not be reached on Thursday.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY THE WASHINGTON POST AND AFP

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