Dec 22, 2009

East Turkestan: Commentators Join in Condemnation

Sample ImageUNPO has joined academics, human rights groups, and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in condemning Phnom Penh's extradition decision of twenty Uyghurs back to China

Below is an article published by the Cambodia Daily:

The Cambodian government's decision to furtively deport 20 Uighur asylum seekers to China on Saturday [19 December 2009] brought swift and thundering international condemnation this weekend, as observers said the repatriation cast serious doubt on Cambodia's ability and desire to implement international law.

Christophe Peschoux, country representative for the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, said he was dismayed by the deportation, which he said violates Cambodia's obligations as a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the Convention Against Torture, and the Convention on Civil and Rights.

"The credibility and reliability of the system of refugee protection established in Cambodia, with the support of the UN [High Commissioner for Refugees], is now seriously questioned," he wrote in an e-mail.

Mr Peschoux also pointed out that Cambodia has in the past been a beneficiary of the international system to protect refugees: "Thousands of Cambodians have had their lives saved thanks to the status of refugee, including many of the leaders of the country," he wrote.

In a statement released yesterday [20 December 2009], the US Embassy in Phnom Penh also called itself "deeply disturbed" by the forcible repatriation, and "deeply concerned" about the welfare of the asylum seekers.

The Uighurs in question-19 men, a pregnant woman, a 6-month-old, and a toddler, all Muslim-hail from Urumqi, the epicenter of an eruption of deadly ethnic violence in July that left around 200 dead and 1,000 injured.

Some of them were apparently activists who have photographic evidence of the Chinese military abusing Uighur protesters. They left China in late September and carefully made their way south to Cambodia with the help of a network of Christian missionaries, arriving here more than a month ago.

The appeal of the destination was obvious: Cambodia is one of only two Southeast Asian nations to have signed the Convention on Refugees, and it has historically been friendly to asylum seekers.

That era appears to be over, at least where China is concerned.

Although as late as Monday [21 December 2009], the Cambodian government had agreed to cooperate with UNHCR in determining the asylum status of the Uighurs and asked the agency to identify a safe site where the Uighurs could be held, on Friday [18 December 2009] the group was forcibly removed from their house at gunpoint.

Even earlier, sources say, the Uighurs were terrified that they were being watched by Chinese spies and begged to be moved out of the country.

Many observers see it as self-evident that the Cambodian government caved to pressure from China, its biggest donor, which last week branded the Uighurs "criminals" and demanded their return.

China has pumped more than $1 billion into the Cambodian economy, and Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping arrives in the country yesterday for a three-day visit during which he is expected to sign 14 grant and loan agreements.

Richard Baum, a China expert and political science professor at the University of California, Los Angles, wrote in an e-mail yesterday that Cambodia was in a precarious position, caught between the abstraction of its international human rights responsibilities and the concrete benefits that a regional superpower has to offer.

"In the end, because Cambodia is small and weak while China is large and strong, realpolitik [led] Phnom Penh to hand over the asylum seekers and risk the opprobrium of the outside world in order to mollify Beijing," he wrote.

Sister Denise Coghlan of the Jesuit Refugee Services, which has worked with the Uighurs, said she was "desperately disappointed" with what she called "a terrible violation of the international [refugee] convention."

"It shows moral bankruptcy that Cambodia would bow to an order from a big donor, China," she said. "In some ways, the humanitarian concerns were just completely outweighed by financial expediency."

And the humanitarian concerns in this case are pressing: Cambodia is sending the Uighurs home to meet a fate that will be grisly at best.

Mr Baum called the deportation "a one-way ticket to harsh retribution." In an effort to crack down hard on Uighur political activism, he said, the Chinese government is conducting a campaign of oppression, persecuting and imprisoning intellectuals, dissidents and other non-violent protesters.

China's record on returned asylum seekers is dismal, according to Andy Swan, a researcher with the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization. People repatriated to China afer fleeing are regularly tortured, denied legal assistance and subjected to closed-door trials.

"Now that the 20 Uighurs have been returned to China, we are pessimistic about the possibility that they will be treated fairly," Mr Swan said. "We expect them to face torture, to be tried in trials that are weighted against them, and for them to enter the New Year with either death sentences or lengthy prison sentences hanging over their heads."

Ilshat Hassan, a US-based spokesman for the Uighur National Congress, had a less measured take on the matter: "The Cambodian government on their hands has our people's blood," he said. "This group of Uighurs will be killed. The Cambodian government will have responsibility for their deaths. They can take the money, but it will be bloody money. God will punish them."