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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Chinese vice president arrives in Cambodia

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping arrived Sunday in Cambodia on the last leg of a four-nation Asian tour.

His arrival came a day after Cambodia bowed to Beijing's wishes and sent back a group of 20 Muslim asylum-seekers sought in connection with violent anti-government protests, despite concern by human rights activists that they face persecution.

Chinese officials had described the ethnic Uighurs as "criminals," and Cambodia _ which maintains warm relations with Beijing _ said it was expelling them because they had illegally entered the country.

Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said Xi Jinping's party arrived by plane in the northwestern province of Siem Reap, home to the famed Angkor Wat temple complex.

On Monday Xi will go to the capital, Phnom Penh, where he will hold talks with Prime Minister Hun Sen and preside with him over the signing of 14 agreements, mostly concerning economic assistance to Cambodia, he said.

The trip is seen as significant because Xi Jinping is widely considered the leading contender to eventually succeed President Hu Jintao.

Xi's previous stops on his tour were Japan, South Korea and Myanmar. Koy Kuong said Xi and his delegation will leaves Cambodia on Tuesday.

While economic powerhouses Japan and South Korea are rivals to China, Myanmar and Cambodia are two of Southeast Asia's poorest countries, where China uses its wealth to spread its influence.

Beijing is the closest and most powerful ally of military-ruled Myanmar, and has major investments in the country, which is shunned by the West because of its failure to restore democratic rule.

Cambodia is nominally more democratic than Myanmar, but Hun Sen is an autocratic ruler who uses his ties with China as a balance against dependency on Western nations.

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US 'deeply disturbed' as Cambodia deports 20 Uighurs to China

The United States is "deeply disturbed" by Cambodia's move to deport 20 Uighur asylum-seekers to China and warned it will affect Cambodia's ties with Washington, the State Department said Sunday.

"The United States is deeply concerned about the welfare of these individuals, who had sought protection under international law," said State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid.

"We are also deeply disturbed that the Cambodian government decided to forcibly remove the group without the benefit of a credible process for determining refugee status and without appropriate participation by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees," he added.

"The United States strongly opposed Cambodia's involuntary return of these asylum seekers before their claims have been heard. This incident will affect Cambodia's relationship with the US and its international standing."

The 20 Uighurs, who were seeking refuge in Cambodia after unrest in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, were sent back to China on Saturday.

The Uighurs' presence in Phnom Penh was made public two weeks ago as they sought UN refugee status in Cambodia, saying they risked torture in China.

Clashes between Xinjiang's Uighurs and China's majority Han ethnic group in July left nearly 200 dead and 1,600 wounded, according to official tolls.

Cambodian foreign ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said the group must be expelled in accordance with domestic law, but rights experts argued the deportation would breach an international convention on refugees.

"Now that the group has been returned to China, we urge the government of China to uphold international norms and to ensure transparency, due process and proper treatment of persons in its territory," Duguid said.

"We continue to stress to all parties concerned the importance of respecting human rights and honoring their obligations under international law."

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Activists condemn Cambodia's deportation of Uighurs to China

PHNOM PENH: Rights activists expressed outrage Sunday at Cambodia’s decision to deport to China a group of 20 Muslim Uighurs who had sought refuge after unrest in the Chinese region of Xinjiang.

The expulsion late Saturday on a Chinese plane, confirmed by the Cambodian interior ministry, came despite protests from the United States, the United Nations and rights groups.

“The Cambodian government has violated its responsibilities as a signatory to the 1951 (UN) Refugee Convention,” President of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights Ou Virak told AFP on Sunday.

“The biggest concern of all is that these 20 Uighurs will get tortured or silently executed once back home,” he said.

The Uighurs’ presence in Phnom Penh was made public two weeks ago as they sought UN refugee status in Cambodia, saying they risked torture in China.

Tensions flared in Xinjiang in China’s northwest in July, when clashes between Uighurs and China’s majority Han ethnic group left nearly 200 dead and 1,600 injured, according to official tolls.

The violence erupted when Uighurs — a mainly Muslim minority that has long complained of repression under Chinese rule — attacked members of China’s Han ethnic majority. In subsequent days, mobs of Han roamed the streets seeking revenge.

The Chinese authorities clamped down on the unrest, mobilising large numbers of troops and curtailing access to the Internet in a bid to stem the unrest that Beijing blamed on “ethnic separatists”, without providing any evidence.

Xinjiang’s leaders announced the arrests of large numbers of people, several of whom have since stood trial in legal proceedings criticised by international observers.

A total of 17 people have so far been sentenced or put to death for their roles in the unrest.

Cambodia’s foreign ministry said domestic law dictated that the group in Phnom Penh had to be removed.

“They are illegal immigrants and according to Cambodian immigration law they should be expelled from the country. So we must expel them,” the ministry’s spokesman Koy Kuong said.

Sara Colm, a Cambodia analyst with Human Rights Watch, said she was
“extremely worried” about the group, which she said had been deported “under the cloak of darkness” by the Cambodian government.

But she said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which had been assisting Cambodia in dealing with the claims for refugee status, was also partly to blame.

“It was an unbelievably poor judgement call on the part of UNHCR to essentially hand over protection of such a high risk group of asylum seekers to the Cambodian government”.

But UNHCR spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey said: “We took extraordinary steps to try to prevent these deportations and in the end it’s the responsibility of a state to provide protection”.

Cambodia’s decision came as Chinese vice-president Xi Jinping was due to begin a three-day visit to the country late Sunday, during which he would sign 14 pacts, including deals on infrastructure and construction, Koy Kuong said.

China and Cambodia have long had close relations, with China giving large amounts of aid to the impoverished Southeast Asian nation.

Cambodian spokesman Khieu Sopheak said two of the original group of 22 Uighurs who disappeared after the group’s arrival were still missing.

Cambodia has insisted the UN agency take responsibility for the pair but the agency says it cannot.

Before the announcement of the deportation, US State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid had said Cambodia should “honour its commitment under international law”.

“We are deeply disturbed by reports the Cambodian government might forcibly return this group of Uighurs without the benefit of a credible refugee status determination process,” Duguid told reporters.

“The United States strongly opposed Cambodia’s involuntary return of these asylum seekers before their claims have been heard. This incident will affect Cambodia’s relationship with the US and its international standing.”

Amnesty International urged Cambodia earlier this week not to deport the group, saying they risked torture at home in China.

Beijing warned Tuesday that UN refugee programs “should not be a haven for criminals” and said the Uighur group, said to include three children, were involved in criminal activity. -- AFP

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