- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 20, 2009

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia | Some Muslims who fled China after deadly ethnic rioting and sought asylum in Cambodia were sent back home Saturday, even though rights groups fear they face persecution and even execution there.

Interior Ministry spokesman Lt. Gen. Khieu Sopheak said the 20 members of the Uighur minority had been put on a special plane sent from China that left Phnom Penh International Airport Saturday night.

“They are going back to China,” he said.

Cambodia has been under intense pressure from China to deport the Uighurs, whom Beijing has called criminals after they fled the country with the help of a secret network of missionaries. They were expelled a day before Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit to Cambodia as part of a four-country tour.

The United States, the United Nations and human rights groups had urged Cambodia to stop the deportation. A spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency said it had not finished evaluating the Uighurs, including two children, for refugee status. She said the agency had stationed people at the airport in an effort to physically prevent the deportation. The plane, however, left from the airport’s military area.

“Even if I say something, can we change anything?” Ilshat Hassan, a U.S.-based director of the World Uighur Congress, said after the deportation. “The UNHCR, the international world, the U.S., everybody who said something that could give us hope, they all failed.”

The Uighurs were being deported because it was determined that they had entered the country illegally, Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said earlier. He said two other Uighurs who had been with the group are missing.

Some countries have refused to send Uighurs - such as those released from the U.S. detention facility at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - back to China over concerns about retribution and abuse. In a letter to the Cambodian government about the Uighurs, the rights group Amnesty International noted that Shaheer Ali, a U.N.-recognized refugee, was executed after being forced to return to China from Nepal in 2002.

A woman answering the phone at the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Saturday night said the ministry had no comment on the Uighurs’ deportation.

Uighurs say Beijing has long restricted their rights, particularly clamping down on their practice of Islam.

Tensions between majority Han Chinese and the Turkic Uighurs in their traditional homeland in far western China exploded into rioting in July, the country’s worst communal violence in decades. The Chinese government says nearly 200 people, mostly majority Han Chinese, died.

Exile groups say Uighurs have been rounded up in mass detentions since the rioting. China has handed down at least 17 death sentences - mostly to Uighurs - over the violence.

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