Twenty Uyghurs deported from Cambodia still missing after one year

For immediate release
December 16, 2010, 10:30 am EST
Contact: Uyghur American Association +1 (202) 478 1920,

A year has passed since 20 Uyghur asylum seekers were deported from Cambodia on a Chinese plane under cover of darkness, and despite Chinese promises to the contrary, no information has been made public about their fates. The Uyghur American Association (UAA) calls upon the Chinese government to provide information about the 20 Uyghurs’ whereabouts, conditions, and legal statuses, and to ensure their safety and well-being. UAA also calls upon the international community to continue to express concern about their situation and insist that they be treated according to international human rights standards. UAA fears that they have likely faced severe persecution, including possible imprisonment, torture, and execution.

The 20 Uyghurs, including one woman and two infants, were deported on December 19, 2009, after having been arbitrarily labeled “criminals” by the Chinese government and just prior to a visit to Cambodia by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, during which he signed a US$1.2 billion economic aid agreement with the government in Phnom Penh. The Uyghurs had been in the process of applying for refugee status at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Phnom Penh. All except one of the Uyghurs who were deported had fled to Cambodia amidst a harsh crackdown on the Uyghur population following unrest in the regional capital of Urumchi that began on July 5, 2009.

“Scores of young Uyghurs have fled China since July 5, 2009, in order to escape the intense repression in their homeland, and it is fortunate that no Uyghur has been deported from the Western countries where they are seeking asylum,” said Uyghur democracy leader Rebiya Kadeer. “However, it is vital that Western nations continue to press China for information about the 20 Uyghurs deported from Cambodia, and that they recognize the extreme danger that exists for any Uyghur asylum seekers who are sent back to China. China considers all Uyghurs who flee China to be criminals, regardless of the evidence.”

Twenty-two Uyghurs had initially sought protection from the UNHCR at its offices in Phnom Penh, after having escaped China through a network of Christian aid groups. UNHCR officials had yet to finish reviewing their cases when they were handcuffed and forcefully taken from UNHCR protection by Cambodian authorities. Two Uyghurs fled before the deportations took place.

Both Cambodia and China are parties to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1984 Convention on Torture. These conventions forbid the return of people to their home countries if they would likely be subjected to persecution, torture or execution there.

Two of those seeking asylum in Cambodia reported having witnessed security forces killing and beating Uyghur demonstrators on July 5, 2009 in Urumchi. In a statement to UNHCR quoted by Radio Free Asia (RFA), Mutellip Mamut expressed fears that, if returned to China, he would be sentenced to life imprisonment or given the death penalty on false charges because of his documentation of police abuses against Uyghur demonstrators.

In deporting the 20 Uyghurs, Cambodian officials ignored the entreaties of non-governmental organizations and government bodies from around the world not to bend to Chinese pressure. UAA extends its gratitude to the U.S. government and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the appeals they made on behalf of the Uyghurs, and thanks all organizations that worked to prevent their deportation.

Human Rights Watch issued a statement in January 2010, in the wake of the deportations, calling upon the Chinese government to disclose the status and whereabouts of the deported Uyghurs:

“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.”

There has also been no news about the fate of 17 Uyghurs and one Han Chinese individual who were reportedly deported from Myanmar in January 2010. While border disagreements have created tensions in the Sino-Burmese relationship, flourishing Sino-Burmese trade, which reached $2.63 billion in 2008, underscores trade concerns inherent to the ties between the two nations.

Uyghurs forcibly repatriated from other countries are frequently subjected to extremely harsh treatment, and are often never heard from again. Concern over the fate of the 20 Uyghurs deported from Cambodia is compounded by the fact that China hinted at subjecting them to trials in response to questions from the New York Times.

The Chinese government has portrayed the unrest in Urumchi solely as a criminal act carried out by a small group of violent Uyghurs, ignoring security forces’ killings of Uyghur protestors, the mass arbitrary detentions of Uyghurs and the systemic human rights issues that led Uyghurs to engage in a peaceful protest on the afternoon of July 5. The government’s treatment of Uyghurs who dared to speak out about human rights violations after July 5 may best be exemplified by the case of Haji Memet and Abdusalam Nasir, who told RFA that Memet’s relative Shohret Tursun had been beaten to death in detention in September 2009. Memet and Nasir were taken into detention on September 23, 2009 on charges of “leaking state secrets”, and their current situation is unknown.

The Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) documented the crackdown carried out by government authorities on the Uyghur population after July 5 in response to the unrest in Urumchi. Beginning in the early hours of July 6, 2009, and continuing in subsequent weeks and months, Uyghurs living in Urumchi and other locations in East Turkestan were subjected to widespread arbitrary detention and “forcible disappearances”. Chinese officials declared many of those detained to be criminals prior to the start of any criminal trials. Among the thousands of Uyghurs who were arbitrarily detained and “forcibly disappeared” in the days, weeks and months after July 5 were the owners and staff of many Uyghur websites accused by the government of having promoted “separatism” or “splittism”.

As stated by Human Rights Watch in its 2009 report, accounts given by witnesses to the arrests of Uyghurs suggest that the arrests were carried out in violation of Chinese and international law. Witnesses said security forces did not introduce themselves or explain the reasons for arrest, and they did not tell families of those arrested where they were being taken. When family members later sought information from the police and military, they were given no information regarding the location, condition or legal status of their loved ones.

See also:

The Long Arm of China

Uyghurs in Cambodia face possible imminent deportation to China

International support needed to ensure safety of 22 Uyghur refugees in Cambodia

Uighurs who fled China in Cambodia seeking asylum