Two years on, deported Uyghur asylum seekers remain “disappeared”

For immediate release
 December 20, 2011, 5:00 pm EST
Contact: Uyghur American Association +1 (202) 478 1920

Two  years ago this week, 20 Uyghur asylum seekers were deported from Phnom Penh, Cambodia  to an unknown fate at the hands of the Chinese government. The 20 Uyghurs,  including a pregnant woman and her two young children, were deported on  December 19, 2009 after Cambodian authorities forcibly removed them from a  safe-house. The Uyghur American Association (UAA) calls on international  governments and media organizations to continue pressing Chinese officials for information about what has happened to these 20 Uyghurs, amid fears that they  have been subjected to imprisonment, torture or death. UAA also calls for  international pressure on China following an extremely disturbing trend, since  December 2009, of Uyghurs deported from other countries with strong trade and  diplomatic ties to China.

A UNHCR  official stated that “in his 30 year history in UNHCR this was the most  flagrant violation of the 1951 Convention on Refugees he had experienced.”

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 individuals 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 violent clampdown on Uyghurs that occurred during and after July 5, 2009 in the  regional capital of Urumchi, in East Turkestan (also known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region). They had all been in the process of applying for  refugee status at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for  Refugees (UNHCR) in Phnom Penh.

In  an alarming global trend taking place 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,  leaving them with nowhere to flee. 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  Chinaseven 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.

As stated by Josh  Kurlantzick, a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington, “China  takes a very hard line on Uighurs who seek out shelter in other countries, as  China does not admit that there are conditions in Xinjiang, where most Uighurs  live, that can be oppressive and might cause Uighurs to flee the country.”

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 the UNHCR quoted by Radio Free Asia (RFA), one of the men, 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. 

Chinese  authorities had promised to be transparent about their treatment of the 20  Uyghurs following their deportation, but have failed to live up to these  assurances. There have been unconfirmed media reports that four of the Uyghurs  have been executed and 14 imprisoned, but Chinese authorities have refused to  answer any questions about their whereabouts or the veracity of these reports. The Chinese government had arbitrarily labeled all 20 Uyghurs as “criminals”  while they were still in Cambodia, adding to concern about their fates. JRS’s  legal officer stated that she had received telephone calls asking why she  was “helping terrorists from China”.

The  day after their deportation, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping began a visit to  Cambodia, during which he signed a US$1.2 billion  economic aid agreement with the government in Phnom Penh. JRS reported that  the head of the Cambodian government’s unit responsible for refugee processing  stated that China was “a good place that respected its people.”

Chief  government spokesman Khieu  Kanharith stated “China has  thanked the government of Cambodia for assisting in sending back these people. According to Chinese law, these people are criminals.”

One of the Uyghur men who had sought refuge with  JRS described  how Chinese officials deal with people it perceives as criminals, saying  that he suffered daily beatings and torture during his year as a political  prisoner in a “re-education through labor” camp in China.

The same man frantically texted  a Human Rights Watch researcher a last message while in the custody of  Cambodian police, just before he and 19 others were forced aboard a plane to  China:

“Please save  r lives,” he wrote.
A devastating silence  followed.

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