Reporting from Phnom Penh, Cambodia — The Cambodian government Saturday sent a group of Muslim Uighur asylum-seekers back to China, where rights group fear they will receive long prison terms or death sentences for alleged involvement in violent protests this year.
Beijing has already executed nine Uighurs and condemned five others to death for their role in the July protests in the western province of Xinjiang that led to deadly clashes between Uighurs and Han, the majority ethnic group in China. Increased migration by Han to the restive region, home to the Turkic Uighurs, has heightened ethnic tensions.
The Uighurs had crossed China's southern border into Vietnam and then Cambodia with the aid of an underground network of Christian missionaries that usually aids North Korean refugees.
A Cambodian Interior Ministry spokesman, Khieu Sopheak, said that the Uighurs were linked to an "international terrorist group" and that he did not believe their decision to seek refuge in Cambodia was based on humanitarian needs.
He said 20 Uighurs were flown back to China on Saturday night and two others who disappeared while under the care of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will join them once they are found.
Khieu said that Cambodia was acting within its rights in deporting the refugees.
"They came into Cambodia illegally, without proper documents," he said. "So we are following the law by deporting them."
Kitty McKinsey, spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency in Asia, said her office deplored Cambodia's decision to send the Uighurs home. She said that the government had reported the group without making an assessment of their rights or the security threats they faced.
"It's a grave breach of Cambodia's obligations," she said.
Analysts and Uighur representatives believe China's growing economic leverage with Cambodia is behind the decision.
"Cambodia has sold itself," said Ilshat Hassan, vice president of the Uyghur American Assn., a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. "It is making itself an accomplice in the deaths of these people."
Hassan said the group included a baby and two other children.
China is a major donor to Cambodia and has agreed to provide $853 million in loans to the Phnom Penh government for dams, infrastructure and irrigation projects. China is also Cambodia's biggest foreign direct investor, pumping $1 billion into the impoverished country this year.
Brady is a special correspondent.