WE are hardly alive now. Please help us out. Otherwise we are going to be killed." I received this text message from a Uighur refugee in Cambodian police detention in December 2009, hours before he and 19 other Uighurs were forced onto a plane and deported to China.
On December 18 - a Friday evening - Cambodian police rounded up the 20 Uighurs, including two young children, at gunpoint from a Phnom Penh safe house jointly administered by the UN and the Cambodian government. Beating those who resisted, the police forced them into police vans and drove off.
An hour later, I received a frantic phone call from a refugee lawyer in Phnom Penh. "Sara - they've all been deported!" she blurted out, on the verge of tears. The head of the UN refugee office in Phnom Penh had just called the lawyer to report that the 20 asylum seekers - whose security we'd been very worried about - had been deported and were "already on a flight" headed back to China. That information turned out to be incorrect - but only by a matter of hours.
The 20 Uighurs were members of a Turkic-speaking, predominantly Muslim minority group from Xinjiang province (region) in western China. Most had fled a harsh government crackdown by Chinese authorities following protests in Xinjiang in July 2009 that turned into one of the worst episodes of ethnic violence in China in decades.
Chinese security forces detained hundreds of Uighurs for their alleged participation in the rioting. Several Uighurs were sentenced to death in trials that failed to meet international fair trial standards. Dozens of Uighur men disappeared after being taken away by security forces.
The Uighurs made their way overland to Cambodia, one of the few countries in Southeast Asia that has signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which obligate governments not to send people fleeing persecution back to countries where their lives or liberty could be at risk. Between May and October, traveling in small groups, they reached Phnom Penh, where the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, issued them letters stating that they were "Persons of Concern" under the UNHCR's protection, awaiting Cambodian government determination of their asylum claims.
In early December, the news broke in the international and Cambodian media that Uighur asylum seekers were in Cambodia. Several articles identified some of the Uighurs by name and cited from their asylum claims, including the fact that some had witnessed - and even photographed - security forces beating and killing Uighurs during the July protests. These press accounts also carried descriptions by some of the Uighurs detailing the persecution, torture and arbitrary detention they had experienced in China.
For these Uighurs - particularly those publicly identified - forced return to China meant not only re-arrest and torture, but the strong possibility of being sentenced to death and executed.
In response, China branded the Uighurs "criminals" and demanded publicly and in private interventions with the Cambodian government that they be returned. "I would like to stress that the international refugee protection system should not be a haven for criminals to evade legal sanctions," a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.
On December 16, the Uighurs were moved into a "safe house" jointly managed by UNHCR and the government. On December 17, though, Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a refugee sub-decree that authorised the interior minister to deny, terminate or remove refugee status and protection granted by UNHCR or the Cambodian government at will and to forcibly return people who fear persecution without due process or cause. This paved the way for the tragic events that began to unfold with the arrest of the Uighurs the following evening.
Several hours after UNHCR reported that the Uighurs were on their way back to China, I received a mysterious text message on my cell phone: "Police caught 20 Uighur here in municipal security center," it read.
"Thanks," I texted back, "who is this?"
I was floored by the reply: "Yusup, from Cambodian jail."
Yusup (a pseudonym) was one of the Uighur asylum seekers. I had met him in November, together with a refugee lawyer. He told us of being slapped, kicked in the head and stomach and beaten on the head with wooden clubs by guards in a detention center in Xinjiang before being sentenced to a year in a "re-education through labour" camp. He had been arrested after sending emails to Radio Free Asia about the government's mistreatment of Uighurs.
He talked of the lingering after-effects of the torture - dizzy spells, persistent headaches and memory loss - and stressed his deep fears for his life if expelled to China.
I quickly rang Yusup back, recognising his voice as he murmured quietly, "Yes, we are in jail." He abruptly stopped talking and it sounded like he was shoving the phone under his clothes. I could hear people chanting prayers in the background.
Through a series of text messages, I learned what had happened. At 5pm - only 30 minutes after the refugee lawyer left the safe house - more than 25 policemen with machine guns entered the compound.
"I was sleeping and the others were praying when the immigration police came," Yusup said. "Their machine guns were pointing at us so we couldn't protest."
As the police led him downstairs, Yusup asked what was happening. They kicked him. A man with a pregnant wife and two young children was also beaten, Yusup said: "He wanted to protect his family. The police treated him very brutally."
From Yusup's description, it was clear that the group was then taken to a building at the National Police Headquarters.
That evening, Lt Tan Sok Vichea, the head of the newly formed Refugee Office, confiscated the Uighurs' "persons of concern" letters. This was the first application of Prime Minister Hun Sen's sub-decree. Once the "persons of concern" status was terminated, the Interior Ministry could order them deported. Cambodian police, including a Chinese-speaking Cambodian in civilian clothes, questioned each of the adults, largely about how much money they had, which was confiscated. "His accent showed he was a Cambodian, from Cambodia, not a Chinese," Yusup told me. "At first I thought he was a translator. After I talked with him he said he was police."
Meanwhile, human rights monitors at the airport were watching for flights scheduled to depart for China. When it became clear that no Uighurs had been bundled onto the 8pm flight for Shanghai, monitors hunkered down for a long night, waiting until the last scheduled flight left at 2am.
Shortly after 6am the next morning, my first text message of the day came in. It was Yusup. "We're still in jail," he wrote, followed by: "When can we leave here?"
Over the next few hours, I periodically checked in with Yusup, who agreed to try to alert me if the group was moved and to delete all messages on his phone. He said the policemen who detained the group had a lion with a sword on their badges, indicating to me they were "Order Police", who report directly to the national police chief.
Yusup's growing frustration and fear was evident in the text he sent me after the group was given lunch: "We r here in the central department of security in the ministry of interior," he wrote. "Please save r lives."
I told him many people were working as hard as they could to help them.
His last message arrived almost 45 minutes later, shortly before 2pm: "Please save r lives." A devastating silence followed.
At 5:50pm, an NGO worker sent a text to report that the UNHCR country representative had informed him that a chartered plane would be arriving at any minute to take the Uighurs back to China. "Unclear departure time, but the flight will land and leave quickly," the NGO worker wrote. At 6pm, contacts at the airport reported that an urgent flight from China would land soon.
Around 7pm, a bus with its curtains drawn was seen leaving the National Police headquarters, escorted by a truckload of armed police. Shortly afterward, the vehicles were seen entering the road to the military airport at Pochentong Airbase.
A little bit before 8pm, an unscheduled flight from Beijing landed at the military airport, turned off its lights and parked in a darkened section of the runway. A diplomatic contact texted me: "Charter plane from China has just landed at airport." At 9:03, human rights monitors saw the plane take off. Shortly afterward the diplomat texted me to say: "Departure confirmed."
The next day, China's vice president Xi Jinping arrived in Cambodia on an official visit. He expressly thanked the Cambodian government for deporting the Uighurs and signed 14 bilateral agreements confirming millions of dollars in Chinese aid, loans, business deals and export credits for Cambodia.
The return of the Uighurs on the "Plane of Shame", as a UN rights official called it, was in flagrant violation of Cambodia's obligations under international covenants it has signed and ratified, including the UN Refugee Convention and the Convention against Torture.
Despite considerable pressure from the UN and many governments - including a 4pm phone call from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - in the end Hun Sen complied with China's demands and incentives, abandoning Cambodia's international commitments to protect refugees and asylum seekers within its borders.
In January 2010, Human Rights Watch received unconfirmed reports that four of the deported Uighurs had been sentenced to death and that all of the others - except the woman and her children - were sentenced to prison terms ranging from five years to life.
The Chinese government neither confirmed nor denied these reports, nor has it provided any information about the fate of the group to UNHCR, concerned governments or international rights organisations. Access to Xinjiang is limited, and human rights monitoring is extremely difficult as residents fear punishment for speaking to outsiders. This, combined with China's track record of executing Uighurs forcibly repatriated from neighbouring countries, makes it difficult to dismiss these reports.
It appears the Cambodian government may have learned the wrong lesson from last year's tragic expulsion of the Uighurs. Officials have now announced they will soon close a safe house for Montagnard refugees and asylum seekers from Vietnam. Increasingly it is becoming the case that no refugee or asylum seeker is truly safe in Cambodia, particularly those from countries with whom Cambodia has close ties.
It's up to donor governments, as well as UNHCR and the UN country team, to set matters straight. They should insist on accountability for those who ordered the Uighurs sent back to China and ensure that other asylum seekers and refugees do not suffer the same fate.
Sara Colm is a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch and has been working in Cambodia since 1992.