THE government should fulfil its international obligations to protect a group of ethnic Uighurs who are in Cambodia seeking political asylum, Amnesty International has said, warning that they could face “torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” if returned to China.
In an open letter to Interior Minister Sar Kheng, Sam Zarifi, Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific director, said Cambodia should resist recent Chinese pressure to deport the 22 asylum seekers.
“The Government of Cambodia is bound by the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits the return of persons to a country where they are at risk of execution, torture or other serious human rights violations,” the letter stated.
“We urge you not to return the 22 Uighur asylum seekers and to ensure that they have access to a fair asylum process.”
The Uighurs, from China’s restive northwest Xinjiang province, arrived in Cambodia at various points last month and have applied for political asylum through the the local office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Uighur rights groups say the asylum seekers fear retaliation from Beijing after witnessing clashes between Chinese security forces and Uighur demonstrators in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, on July 5.
Amnesty’s letter comes amid an apparent increase in Chinese pressure for the return of the Uighurs.
On Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Jiang Yu said during a news briefing in Beijing that the Uighurs in Cambodia were suspected of criminal offences in China.
She also warned that the UN’s refugee protection system should not be used as “a haven for criminals to avoid legal sanctions”.
Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Amnesty’s concerns were “premature”, and that the government, with UNHCR’s assistance, was conducting interviews to determine whether the Uighurs are eligible for refugee status.
“China and Cambodia are both sovereign states, so neither one can put pressure on the other,” he said.
“It is premature for Amnesty International to say that the Chinese government will put pressure on the Cambodian government. This idea is wrong.”
Koy Kuong said he did not know whether the Uighur issue would be raised during upcoming talks with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is scheduled to arrive in Cambodia for a two-day visit Sunday.
China has handed down at least 17 death sentences over the July riots in Xinjiang, which it says left nearly 200 dead and 1,600 injured.
WITH ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP