Image: Uighurs
Tang Chhin Sothy  /  AFP - Getty Images
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, left, toasts champagne with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during a signing ceremony on economic aid agreements at the Council of Ministers in Phnom Penh on Monday. The agreements came after Cambodia satisfied Beijing by deporting a group of 20 Muslim Uighurs.
updated 12/21/2009 8:45:15 PM ET 2009-12-22T01:45:15

Ethnic Uighur asylum-seekers forcibly repatriated over the weekend had warned the U.N. refugee agency they feared long jail terms or even the death penalty if they were sent back to China, according to statements seen by The Associated Press.

The 20 Uighur Muslims had fled to Cambodia in search of asylum after witnessing and documenting violent ethnic riots in the restive western Chinese region of Xinjiang this summer that left nearly 200 dead. They were put on a plane from Phnom Penh to Beijing on Saturday under heavy pressure from China, despite strong protests from the U.S. and the United Nations.

China has called the Uighurs suspected criminals, and on Monday defended the forced returns, saying it was in line with immigration law.

"The Chinese side received the above-mentioned people according to usual practice," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in a faxed statement. Jiang refused to say where the Uighurs are being held and whether they had been charged with any crime.

Cambodia said it expelled the Uighurs because they had illegally entered the country. It has since been publicly censured by the U.S., which warned the deportations could hurt their bilateral relations.

But it may have helped cement Cambodia's ties with China, a key ally and major donor to the impoverished Southeast Asian nation. On Monday, China signed over $1.2 billion in aid to Cambodia during a visit there by Vice President Xi Jinping. The assistance, including 14 agreements for grants and loans, ranges from help in building roads to repairing Buddhist temples.

Witnesses to ethnic violence
Several of the Uighurs had told the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, in Cambodia, that they feared lengthy imprisonment or even the death penalty if they were returned to China because they had been involved in the summer's ethnic unrest.

Their written statements, which had been provided to the U.N. to support their asylum applications, were obtained independently by The AP Monday. Their names are not being published for fear of retaliation by the government. The statements describe the bloodshed that broke out after security forces cracked down on protesting Uighurs. The unrest, in which Uighurs also clashed with ethnic Han Chinese residents, was widely regarded as the worst ethnic violence in the region for decades.

One man, a 29-year-old from Kashgar, said he had taken photos and videos of the chaos on July 5 in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi. He told of watching and filming from a roof at night as military police clashed with and shot at protesters, and Uighurs fought back with rocks. He said he saw bloodied bodies in the streets.

"I felt like I was in a battlefield. Looking down at the streets full of Uighur bodies, I thought that I was going to die," he said in his statement.

Four days later, he met a foreign reporter on the streets and agreed to turn over the photographs and video footage.

"If I am returned to China, I am sure that I will be sentenced to life imprisonment or the death penalty for my involvement in the Urumqi riots," he said in his statement.

Another 29-year-old witness, from Aksu, who had sold cell phones for a living, said he had joined some 300 protesters in the main square before hundreds of police arrived and began beating them.

"I heard shots fired and became very scared ... The next morning, I went into the street after praying. I saw blood on the streets," he said in his statement.

A third man, a 27-year-old teacher from Aksu, said that before the summer unrest he had been pressed to act as an informant by state security officials who wanted to know if his students were anti-Chinese. They asked him to monitor Uighur communist Web sites. He spent more than a year being tortured and beaten in a re-education camp.

"I can tell the world what is happening to Uighur people and the Chinese authorities do not want this. If returned, I am certain I would be sent to prison," he wrote in his statement.

EU 'deeply concerned'
The group of Uighurs had made the journey from China's far west through to Vietnam and then Cambodia with the help of a network of missionary groups. Two Uighurs fled before the group was forced to return on a special plane sent to Phnom Penh on Saturday.

The European Union said Monday it was "deeply concerned" about Cambodia's decision to return the group of Uighurs to China and urged Beijing to respect the rights of the returnees.

"The (Cambodian) government's action shows a worrying disregard for Cambodia's obligations under international law, as well as for specific undertakings given to UNHCR in this case," said a statement from the EU's Swedish presidency.

Earlier, the United States voiced similar concerns, while human rights groups say they fear the Uighurs will be harshly persecuted.

Overseas Uighur groups say Uighurs in China have been rounded up in mass detentions since the summer's violence. China has handed down at least 17 death sentences over the rioting.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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