CHINA has indicated that the 20 ethnic Uighur asylum seekers who were forcibly deported by Cambodian authorities in December are set to stand trial for committing “criminal” acts, American media have quoted a Chinese official as saying.
Ma Zhaoxu, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in a written statement to The New York Times last week that China was a country “ruled by law” and was set to implement it in the case of the Uighurs.
“The judicial authorities deal with illegal criminal issues strictly according to law,” he said in a written statement to the paper. Like previous Chinese statements, the Times report did not include any information about the nature of the charges against the Uighurs or when they are to stand trial.
The vague announcement has done little to dampen increasing concern about the fate of the 20 Uighurs – including three children – who were flown out of Cambodia on December 19 after arriving in Cambodia a month earlier to seek political asylum.
Uighur rights groups say a total of 22 Uighurs arrived in Cambodia in November after witnessing ethnic riots in China’s Xinjiang province in July.
Many observers linked the deportations to the arrival in Cambodia the following day of Vice President Xi Jinping, who signed an unprecedented US$1.2 billion in economic aid agreements with Cambodia. Two Uighurs escaped at the time and still remain unaccounted for.
In a statement issued on January 28, Human Rights Watch alleged that the deportees had disappeared into a “black hole” on their return to China.
“There is no information about their whereabouts, no notification of any legal charges against them, and there are no guarantees they are safe from torture and ill-treatment,” Sophie Richardson, the group’s Asia advocacy director, said in the statement.
The group also called on the Chinese government to “disclose the status and whereabouts” of the 20 Uighurs and allow them to meet with family members, lawyers and UN officials.
Sister Denise Coughlan, director of Jesuit Refugee Services Cambodia, which was involved with the Uighur case, said that in her interactions with the 22 asylum seekers, she had no impression that they were responsible for criminal acts.
“My experience of them is that they committed no crime other than trying to escape a country they feared was going to torture them,” she said.
She also said that the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which had previously put its trust in the Cambodian government to properly process the Uighurs’ asylum claims, should be allowed to meet with them in China.
“Because they were taken from a house that was guaranteed safe by UNHCR and the Cambodian government, the UN should be allowed access to them,” she added.
When contacted on Sunday, Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said he did not know what was happening in China with regard to the Uighurs.
“We have done our job already, which is to implement the law in Cambodia,” he said. He added that authorities were still trying to locate the two remaining Uighurs, but that so far he had heard no information about them.
On January 26, a court in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, handed down death sentences for four more Uighurs who were accused of involvement in the July riots, bringing to 26 the number of those sentenced to death in connection with the incidents.