(New York) - The Chinese government should immediately allow access to the 20 Uighur asylum seekers who were forcibly deported to China on December 19, 2009, in what was a breach by the Cambodian government of its obligations under international law, Human Rights Watch said today. The group of Uighurs included 17 men, one woman, and two children.
China's record of torture, disappearance, and arbitrary detention of Uighurs, its failure to extend due process for prosecutions in Xinjiang, and its intense pressure on Cambodia to return the group are cause for gravest concern about the asylum seekers' whereabouts and wellbeing, Human Rights Watch said.
"The Chinese foreign ministry unilaterally labeled these Uighur men, women and children ‘criminals,'" said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The Chinese government must be pressed as hard as possible to announce the location of the returnees, to allow access to members of the international diplomatic community, and to release them unless it produces credible evidence in public to show that each one committed acts that could be described as criminal in light of international standards."
Human Rights Watch said immediate access to the Uighur asylum seekers should be granted by Beijing to United Nations representatives, legal representatives, diplomats, humanitarian personnel and family members.
Most of the Uighurs fled China after the July 5-7, 2009, protests in Urumqi, and arrived in Cambodia in late October and early November. They had been issued "Persons of Concern" letters by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and, as of December 16, they had been moved into a facility jointly managed by UNHCR and the Cambodian government.
The protests of July 5-7, 2009, in Xinjiang's capital of Urumqi were one of the worst episodes of ethnic violence in China in decades. The unrest appears to have been sparked by an attack on Uighurs in the southeast part of the country, which served as a rallying cry for Uighurs angry over longstanding discriminatory policies in Xinjiang. The initially peaceful Uighur demonstration quickly turned into a violent attack against Han Chinese, leaving scores dead or injured.
Instead of launching an impartial investigation into the incidents in accordance with international and domestic standards, Chinese law enforcement agencies carried out a massive campaign of arrests in the Uighur areas of Urumqi. Official figures suggest that the number of people detained by the security forces in connection with the protests has reached well over a thousand people. Fourteen people, including Han and Uighurs, have been sentenced to death so far. The trials related to the July violence fell short of minimum standards for the administration of justice, with restrictions on legal representation, pre-determined verdicts, failure to publicly announce or hold open trials as mandated by law - all chronic problems in China's judicial system.
Human Rights Watch said that Cambodia's action in forcibly returning the Uighurs without recognizing their claims to protection violated international law, namely its obligations under the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol and the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. China is also a party to both widely ratified international treaties, whose key provisions against forcible return are additionally reflected as universal norms of customary international law.
"This action is particularly deplorable given that so many Cambodians have been given protection as refugees and because Cambodia is one of the few Asian countries that is a party to the Refugee Convention and the Convention Against Torture," said Adams. "Hun Sen's action makes a mockery of Cambodia's commitment to work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to protect people who have a justified fear of persecution or torture upon return."
The United Nations and many governments urged the Cambodian government not to illegally return the Uighurs, but Prime Minister Hun Sen ignored these entreaties. Instead, the Uighur asylum seekers were taken to a military airport and deported a chartered aircraft. The plane's destination remains unknown.
Hours later, Chinese vice president Xi Jinping arrived in Phnom Penh, where he expressly thanked the Cambodian government for deporting the Uighurs and confirmed a commitment of approximately $900 million in aid.
"When a member of the Security Council so flagrantly pressures another country to violate its international legal obligations, it's a matter of concern not just for a handful of asylum seekers, but for the world," said Adams. "No Chinese officials should be allowed to participate in the United Nations Security Council, the United Nations Human Rights Council, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Executive Committee, or other relevant international fora without being challenged over these shocking violations."