- Sun, 12/20/2009 - 11:00
The Wall Street Journal
By REBIYA KADEER
DECEMBER 21, 2009.
On Saturday night under cover of darkness, a special Chinese plane departed from the military section of the Phnom Penh airport carrying 20 Uighur asylum seekers. For this group of men, women and children, this was the end of their failed effort to seek freedom from the Chinese regime.
Cambodia's decision to deport the asylum seekers, who were in the process of applying for refugee status at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is a reminder that Beijing's oppression of the Uighurs does not stop at China's borders. The Uighurs are a predominantly Turkic, Muslim people who live in East Turkestan (also knows as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region). For decades they have been the victims of systemic human-rights abuses at the hands of the Chinese government.
Fearing further persecution, these 20 Uighurs had fled to Cambodia in November with the assistance of Christian aid groups. The Cambodian Foreign Affairs Ministry initially declared it would cooperate with the UNHCR regarding the asylum interview process, but, in an about-face with tragic consequences, two days later issued a proclamation of "illegal entry" by the 20 Uighurs. UNHCR officials had yet to finish reviewing their cases when the Uighurs were handcuffed and forcefully taken from UNHCR protection by Cambodian authorities. China's track record of mistreating repatriated Uighur refugees leads us to fear that they can expect even worse on Chinese soil.
There's little hope these deportees will receive fair trial: Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesmen have already declared them to be criminals without offering any evidence to back up their claims (and despite the fact two of the Uighurs are children). China's insistence on the guilt of these Uighurs in the absence of proof is consistent with its treatment of other Uighurs detained after the July unrest in Urumchi, whom Chinese officials declared to be criminals prior to the start of any criminal trials.
Beijing leaned hard on Phnom Penh to secure the deportation of these Uighurs, because once free they would no doubt contradict the official version of the events of July 5, when security forces cracked down violently on Uighur protestors and unrest spread through the city of Urumqi. The government has portrayed the unrest solely as a criminal act carried out by a small group of violent Uighurs, ignoring the security forces' killings of Uighur protestors, the mass arbitrary detentions of Uighurs and the systemic human-rights issues that led Uighurs to engage in a peaceful protest on the afternoon of July 5. At least two of the recently deported Uighurs reported having witnessed security forces beating and killing Uighur protestors on July 5.
The Cambodian government must be held accountable for its act of complicity with the Chinese government. Cambodia is a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, but turned a deaf ear to the entreaties of the U.S. and other democratic countries on behalf of these Uighur asylum seekers. Phnom Penh's decision was no doubt influenced by enormous Chinese pressure, backed by hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and a reported $1 billion in foreign direct investment. Prime Minister Hun Sen has labeled China as Cambodia's "most trustworthy friend," and Cambodian officials were loathe to disappoint Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping on the eve of his Dec. 20 visit to Phnom Penh.
The deportation of the Uighurs in Cambodia is a sign of China's increasing ability to resist international pressure regarding its human-rights violations. As China's economic influence grows throughout Asia and the world, so too does its diplomatic clout. Economies in Central, South and Southeast Asia are increasingly dependent on cooperation with China, as the Chinese market seeks to feed its ravenous need for the natural resources available in these nations. Governments of countries neighboring China are reluctant to take any action that would displease Chinese authorities, leaving Uighurs nowhere to flee.
The United States and other nations committed to the preservation of human rights must call upon China to provide the 20 repatriated Uighurs with due process of law and must continue to express concern about their situation despite China's protestations over what it terms "interference in its domestic affairs." During my time in a Chinese prison, my jailers often told me the world did not care about me or the Uighurs' struggle for freedom, but my treatment did improve when officials from the U.S. and other democratic countries campaigned for my release. If there is to be any hope for the safety and well-being of these Uighur asylum seekers, it is vital that world powers continue to press China regarding their welfare.
Ms. Kadeer is the president of the World Uighur Congress and the Uighur American Association.