BEIJING – China's foreign ministry on Monday defended the repatriation of 20 Muslims who had fled to Cambodia, saying the move was in line with immigration law and usual practice.
The ethnic Uighurs sought asylum in Cambodia following deadly ethnic riots this summer in China's far western region of Xinjiang. China says they are suspected criminals.
The group was deported back to China on Saturday despite protests from the U.S. and the U.N. Several members of the group told U.N. representatives in Cambodia they feared persecution if returned to China. The minority complains Beijing has long restricted their rights, particularly clamping down on their practice of Islam.
"In line with immigration law, Cambodia has in recent days deported 20 Chinese citizens who illegally entered their country," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in a faxed statement. "The Chinese side received the above-mentioned people according to usual practice."
Jiang did not say where the Uighurs were or whether they had been charged with any crime upon their return to China.
The group of Uighurs had made the journey from their traditional homeland of Xinjiang in China's far west through to Vietnam and on to Cambodia with the help of a network of missionary groups.
Before they were repatriated, several Uighurs had told the U.N. refugee agency in Cambodia that they feared lengthy imprisonment or even the death penalty if they were returned to China because of their involvement in the summer's ethnic unrest. Their written statements to the U.N. were obtained by the AP Monday.
One man, a 29-year-old from Kashgar, said he had taken photo and videos of the chaos from July 5, showing police beating protesters with their weapons, Uighurs fighting back with rocks, and bloodied bodies in the streets. He had then passed them on to a foreign reporter.
"If I am returned to China, I am sure that I will be sentenced to life imprisonment or the death penalty for my involvement in the Urumqi riots," he said in his statement.
The U.S. State Department said Sunday it was "deeply disturbed" by the move, which may have violated Cambodia's international obligations to asylum-seekers. The U.S. also says it is concerned about the welfare of the Uighurs.
State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said the incident would affect Cambodia's relationship with Washington and its international standing.
The ethnic rioting in July between Uighurs and the majority Han Chinese was China's worst communal violence in decades. The Chinese government says the violence left nearly 200 people, mostly Han, dead.
Overseas Uighur groups say Uighurs have been rounded up in mass detentions since the violence. China has handed down at least 17 death sentences over the rioting.