(New York) - The Chinese government should disclose the status and whereabouts of ethnic Uighurs repatriated against their will from Cambodia and allow the United Nations, lawyers, and family members to meet with them, Human Rights Watch said today.

On December 19, 2009, the Cambodian government, under Chinese pressure, forcibly repatriated a group of 20 Uighurs, including two young children, in breach of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, and the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, to which Cambodia is a party.

"Uighur asylum seekers sent back to China by Cambodia have disappeared into a black hole," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "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."

China's record of torture, disappearance, and arbitrary detention of Uighurs, as well as the politicized nature of judicial proceedings in past cases of forced repatriation, raise serious concerns that these individuals are currently at risk of torture and ill-treatment.

In mid-January, Human Rights Watch received an unconfirmed report that some of the Uighurs forcibly deported from Cambodia the previous month have already been sentenced by a court in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China, with some defendants sentenced to death. Although such quick sentencing would appear to be unusual, the Chinese government's failure to provide any information about the fate of the group makes it impossible to know whether the report is accurate.

"The Chinese government should immediately make a public statement about the whereabouts and status of the Uighurs repatriated from Cambodia, and allow the UN and family members to meet with them," said Richardson. "Family members have the right to know what has happened to their loved ones."

Chinese authorities have a history of executing or harshly sentencing Uighurs forcibly repatriated from neighboring countries:

  • In February 2007, Ismail Semed, a Uighur who had been forcibly repatriated from Pakistan, was executed under separatism and terrorism charges.
  • In October 2003, Shaheer Ali, also known as Shirali, was executed, also under terrorism charges, after the Nepali authorities had deported him in January 2002. He had left a detailed testimony of the torture he had endured while in detention in 2001.
  • There were also credible allegations of torture in the case of Hussein Celil, a Uighur refugee who had acquired Canadian citizenship and had been deported at China's request by Uzbek authorities in June 2006. The Chinese government refused to recognize Celil's Canadian citizenship or to allow Canadian diplomats to visit him or attend his trial. He was sentenced in April 2007 to life imprisonment on terrorism charges after having been coerced into signing a confession, according to his family.

In December 2009, Chinese authorities labeled the group of Uighur asylum-seekers in Cambodia "criminals" and indicated that many were wanted for their participation in ethnic unrest in Urumqi in July 2009 and other incidents. No evidence to support these allegations was provided.

While applying for refugee status in Cambodia, some of the individuals provided detailed accounts of past torture and persecution by Chinese security forces, as well as threats and acts of retaliation against their families if they did not turn themselves in.

One man described having been detained and beaten in police custody following a peaceful demonstration in Xinjiang.

Another member of the group gave a detailed account of his torture and mistreatment in a detention facility in Urumqi in 2007, including being slapped, kicked in the head and stomach, hit on the head with wooden clubs by prison guards, who also authorized him being beaten unconscious by cell-mates.

A third man told of being arrested in 2008 for teaching people about Muslim religious practices. He was beaten by police with a shovel and hung by his handcuffed hands to window bars for hours.

A fourth man described police arresting and slapping him when he was a teenager for praying in his home and the persecution of his family, including confiscation of their farmland, after they refused to comply with a program designed to send unmarried youths to work in factories in eastern China.

A number of men in the group expressed deep fears about their security if they were returned to China because they had witnessed the violence in Urumqi on July 5, 2009.

Human Rights Watch said that 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 July 2009 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, like many trials in China, fell short of minimum standards for the administration of justice, with restrictions on legal representation, pre-determined verdicts, and the failure to publicly announce or hold open trials as mandated by law.

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about reports that a group of 17 Uighurs was deported from the northern Shan state of Burma on January 18, 2010. The men, along with one ethnic Han Chinese, were allegedly handed over at the Ruili-Muse border crossing into Yunnan province, on the Burma-China border, by security officials of the Shan State Special Region 2, a semi-autonomous border zone controlled by the United Wa State Army that has maintained a cease-fire agreement with the central Burmese authorities since 1989.

"The Chinese government must treat all returnees humanely, ensure fair trials, and not persecute individuals for activities and speech that are protected under international law," Richardson said. "Until China complies fully with these standards, we urge other governments to stop all deportations of Uighurs to China."