Prague, 21 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Chynturgan Sydykov is the lawyer for Jalal Kasarji, an ethnic Uyghur who is currently serving a long prison term in Kyrgyzstan. Kasarji was sentenced, along with three other Uyghurs, for organizing assassinations and kidnappings and being members of a Uyghur terrorist organization.
Sydykov says Kyrgyz authorities are considering deporting his client to China: "Even if they proved that Kasarji is guilty, he should serve his prison term here [in Kyrgyzstan]. However, they are planning to deport him to China. Even now, I don't believe they have proved Kasarji's guilt. They don't have any proof. Now, the Chinese are asking to deport him. There are some rumors that they will kill any [Uyghur] deported to China, without any trial."
"We have no connection with terrorists. Actually, China itself is a terrorist. It occupied our territory, our soil, our riches."
Sydykov's concerns are shared by a Kyrgyz human rights group called Democracy, which is calling on the Central Asian republics not to deport members of the Uyghur community to China, where they could face possible execution.
Scattered throughout Central Asia, Turkic Muslim Uyghurs represent approximately half the population in China's northwest Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region, which borders Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. About 10 million Uyghurs live in Xinjiang, with some 250,000 in Kazakhstan and about 50,000 in Kyrgyzstan.
Marc Allison is a researcher for Amnesty International, a leading human rights group based in London. He says China's neighbors have on several occasions deported Uighurs without due process. "Recently, we've had people who have been sent back from Pakistan and Nepal and possibly also from Central Asia, although it's extremely difficult to get information. China has over recent months entered into extradition agreements with a number of countries, including Central Asia and Pakistan. One motive for this appears to be to ensure that Uyghurs, who China believes to be separatists or terrorists, will be sent back to China," Allison said.
Allison notes that the forcible return of an individuals to countries where they might face torture contradicts international law, particularly the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
If forcibly returned to China, he adds, Uyghur asylum seekers or refugees suspected of being involved in pro-independence activities are at risk of becoming the victims of serious human rights abuses, including torture, unfair trials and possibly execution.
Sadyk is a pseudonym for an ethnic Uyghur living in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. "Last year, Kyrgyzstan deported two young [ethnic Uyghurs] to China. The Chinese authorities tortured and killed them. Then they gave their bodies to their parents in [the Chinese city of] Kashgar [in Xinjiang] last September, saying disease had killed them," Sadyk said.
In 1999, Kazakhstan returned three Uyghur refugees to China while their asylum claims were under review. China sentenced them to death and is believed to have executed them.
Li Hua, first secretary at the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek, said it is normal to deport what he called "criminals." "There is an autonomous region in our country, the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region. The Uyghurs manage the region themselves. There are laws in the world according to which criminals must be held responsible," Li Hua said.
Abdujelil Karakash heads the Germany-based East Turkestan Information Center, which publicizes reports on ongoing abuses against Uyghurs. He and his organization were included on a list of four Uyghur terrorist groups and 11 individuals wanted for terrorism-related crimes. The list was published last month by the authorities in Beijing.
"We have no connection with terrorists. Actually, China itself is a terrorist. It occupied our territory, our soil, our riches. Every day, it sends about 30,000 Chinese to East Turkestan, and 100 percent of them stay there," Karakash said.
In 1945, a large Uyghur revolt was brutally suppressed by Chinese communists. Since then, the authorities have been battling Uyghur separatists in Xinjiang.
Rana Mitter teaches modern Chinese politics and history at Britain's Oxford University. He said China has used various methods to deal with the problem. "Some of them have been of a more cooperative variety -- for instance, trying to integrate Uyghurs into the wider Chinese governments [or] increasing the education. But [it] also has resorted on occasion to violent crackdowns against Uyghur separatist movements. And they regard the advocacy of a separate Uighur state as a crime against national law," Mitter said.
The unrest in China in the late 1990s, when the Uyghur separatist movement turned increasingly violent, resulted in a surge of executions. Amnesty reported that at least 190 people -- an average of nearly two a week -- were put to death in Xinjiang from January 1997 to April 1999.
Mitter points out that Beijing has intensified its political crackdown in Xinjiang in recent years, using its opposition to Uyghur separatism as part of the wider war against international terrorism.
According to the rights group Democracy, Central Asian politicians and security organs -- in cooperation with Chinese special forces -- "actively play the Uyghur card" by attributing terrorism and religious extremism to Uyghurs.
Kyrgyz human rights activist Tursunbek Akun told RFE/RL, "China's special security forces, in close cooperation with the Kyrgyz special forces, are pursuing and persecuting Uyghurs living in Kyrgyzstan -- Uyghurs who emigrated from China."
Last year, Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court banned four groups branded as terrorist and extremist organizations. Three of them are linked to China's Uyghurs -- the Organization for the Liberation of Turkestan, the Islamic Party of Turkestan, and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.
The United States added the latter group to its own list of terrorist organizations in 2002. Recent reports say Washington is considering a Chinese request to repatriate Uyghurs captured in Afghanistan and currently held at Guantanamo Bay.
(Tyntchtykbek Tchoroev, director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, and Khurmat Babadjanov from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)