According to a January 25 Radio Free Asia (RFA) report, citing local sources, Musa Muhammad, one of 20 Uyghur asylum seekers who was deported from Cambodia on December 19, 2009, has been sentenced to 17 years in prison by a Chinese court during a closed trial. According to unconfirmed information from local sources obtained by the Uyghur American Association (UAA), two other Uyghur asylum seekers deported from Cambodia, Nurahmet Kudret and Islam Urayim, were sentenced to life in prison. These sentences highlight the harsh persecution, including torture and imprisonment, facing Uyghur asylum seekers and refugees who are refouled to China, and underline the urgent need to ensure the safety of Uyghur asylum seekers and prevent their deportation. UAA calls upon Chinese authorities to confirm the information about the sentences and disclose the whereabouts and treatments of the other 17 Uyghurs who were deported, including a pregnant woman with two young children.
“We condemn the sentencing of Nurahmet Kudret, Islam Urayim, and Musa Muhammad, and ask the international community to protect other Uyghur asylum seekers from suffering the same fate,” said UAA president Alim Seytoff. “The imprisonment of these men, who were forcefully deported from a place of refuge, should serve as a wake-up call to the world about the brutal treatment awaiting Uyghur asylum seekers who are sent back to China. The Uyghurs in Cambodia were sent back to the very repression they were attempting to flee. We cannot allow the long arm of Chinese pressure to govern the treatment of Uyghur asylum seekers in other countries.”
According to information obtained by UAA, 40-year-old Nurahmet Kudret, originally from Gulbagh town in Yarkand County, is serving his life sentence in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Prison No. 3 in Urumchi, and 32-year-old Islam Urayim, originally from Uchturpan County in Aksu Prefecture, is serving his life sentence in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Prison No. 1 in Urumchi. It is unclear when the two men were sentenced, or what charges they were convicted of.
Islam Urayim was one of two Uyghur asylum seekers who reported having witnessed security forces killing and beating Uyghur demonstrators on July 5, 2009 in Urumchi, the regional capital of East Turkestan. He was one of only four Uyghur asylum seekers who had agreed to be named while still in Cambodia. Urayim told RFA before being deported that Chinese authorities had misrepresented the truth about events on July 5, by covering up news about shootings and killings of Uyghurs, and only publicizing acts of violence committed by Uyghurs. Urayim wrote to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) about how he had learned of mass detentions of Uyghur males in the wake of July 2009 unrest in the regional capital of Urumchi. He told RFA that he “feared living abroad but wanted to tell the world what he witnessed during the July clashes.”
“Living abroad is a terrifying thing for me, but I have no choice,” he said. “They’re hiding the fact that the police shot at demonstrators, that Uyghurs were killed, and they’re showing only Chinese fatalities to the world. I fled the country so I could do my part in revealing the facts about July 5.”
According to RFA’s January 25, 2012 report, Muhammad, 25, was sentenced to prison by the Kashgar Intermediate Court on October 20, 2011. It is unclear what charges he was convicted of. Originally from Uchturpan County in Aksu Prefecture, Muhammad was detained at the Uchturpan detention center after being deported from Cambodia in December 2009. He was later transferred to the Kashgar Yanbulaq Prison. According to unconfirmed reports, prior to his sentencing, his relatives attempted to visit him in Yanbulaq Prison twice but were refused by prison authorities. After hearing rumors that Muhammad had been sentenced to 17 years in prison, his relatives went to the prison a third time to ask for his sentencing documents. However, prison authorities told them that the documents had been given to Muhammad and would not be provided to family members. They told Muhammad’s relatives that he had been transferred to Daheyan Prison in Turpan Prefecture to serve his sentence.
Western governments, including the United States, sought to apply pressure on Cambodian officials to refrain from deporting the 20 Uyghurs. International human rights groups have expressed concern over the 20 Uyghurs in the wake of their deportation, with Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch telling the media “Uighur asylum seekers sent back to China by Cambodia have disappeared into a black hole.” Chinese authorities have refused to publicize information about their fates, despite international please and Chinese officials’ promises to deal transparently with the Uyghurs’ cases upon their return.
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. Cambodian officials abandoned their international obligations by deporting the 20 Uyghurs to China, gaining favor and funding from China in return for this action. The deportations took place 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.
On the eve of Vice President Xi’s February 14 visit to the United States, UAA calls on the U.S. government to address the situation of the Uyghurs deported from Cambodia in its dialogue with Xi, and asks U.S. officials to express deep concern over the deteriorating human rights situation in East Turkestan.
One of the 20 Uyghurs told staff of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) who cared for them “I would prefer to die than be returned to China”. The 20 Uyghurs, including a pregnant woman and her two young children, were deported after Cambodian authorities forcibly removed them from a safe-house. They had fled persecution in China in small groups between May and October 2009, many with the aid of Christian groups within China. Most of the Uyghurs had fled the unrest and the clampdown on Uyghurs that occurred during and after July 5, 2009 in Urumchi. They had all been in the process of applying for refugee status at the office of the UNHCR in Phnom Penh.
The prosecution of Uyghurs accused of committing crimes related to the unrest in Urumchi in July 2009 has been marked by a demonstrated lack of due process and transparency. Both prosecutors and judges in East Turkestan received instructions from Communist Party authorities regarding the handling of cases related to July 5. In addition, political criteria were used to select judicial personnel assigned to handle the trials. Death sentences for those convicted of crimes related to July 5 were handed down amidst a climate of intense repression and following highly politicized trials. China’s state media has reported that 26 individuals have been sentenced to death and nine individuals have been sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve for murder and other crimes allegedly committed during the July unrest.
In the wake of the Cambodian deportations, Uyghurs have been deported in unprecedented numbers from countries that are susceptible to Chinese economic and diplomatic pressure. Eleven Uyghurs were deported from Malaysia on August 18, 2011, in a flagrant violation of international law on the part of Malaysian officials. This most recent deportation followed the August 8, 2011 deportation of five Uyghurs, including a woman and two young children, from Pakistan; the August 6, 2011 handing over of Uyghur Nur Muhammed from Thai authorities to Chinese officials, who likely deported him; the May 30, 2011 deportation of Uyghur refugee asylum seeker Ershidin Israel from Kazakhstan to China; seven Uyghurs who were deported from Laos in March 2010; and 17 Uyghurs who were deported from Myanmar on January 18, 2010. There is an urgent need for Western countries and international organizations to do more to ensure the protection of Uyghur refugees and asylum seekers. Chinese officials have refused to release information about the fates of any of these deported Uyghurs.