PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodia has deported back to China 20 Muslim Uyghurs who fled the country after deadly ethnic violence this year, a government official said on Sunday, despite concerns they will face persecution by Beijing.
The Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim ethnic group involved in rioting in western China that killed nearly 200 people in July, were smuggled into Cambodia in recent weeks and applied for asylum at the United Nations refugee agency office in Phnom Penh.
Human rights groups say they fear for the lives of the Uyghurs if they are deported to China.
They were deported late on Saturday, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong. "We were implementing the immigration laws of the country. They came to Cambodia illegally. We had to apply our immigration law," he added.
The deportation coincides with a visit to Cambodia on December 20 by Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping, who is expected to sign 14 pacts related to infrastructure construction, grants and loans.
The Washington-based Uyghur American Association said the 20 will likely face torture and possible execution, citing the case of Shaheer Ali, a Uighur political activist who fled to Nepal in 2000 and was granted refugee status by the United Nations.
He was forcibly returned to China from Nepal in 2002 and executed a year later, according to state media.
The United Nations refugee agency office condemned the deportation. "The forced return of asylum-seekers without a full examination of their asylum claims is a serious breach of international refugee law," the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office said in a statement.
UNHCR spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey said her agency had sent staff to Phnom Penh's main airport on Saturday to try to physically stop the deportation, but authorities circumvented this using a military airport instead.
Two of the original group of 22 Uyghurs had disappeared while being transferred around Phnom Penh, she added.
The U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh said it was "deeply disturbed" the Uighurs may be forcibly returned.
Beijing has called the asylum seekers "criminals", although it has offered no evidence to back up the allegations.
China is Cambodia's biggest investor, having poured more than $1 billion in foreign direct investment into the country.
Rights groups say Cambodia is flouting a 1951 convention on refugees in which it pledged not to return asylum seekers to countries where they will face persecution. Cambodia is one of two Southeast Asian nations to have signed the convention.
The July 5 riots, which began with protests against attacks on Uyghur workers in south China, killed 197 people, most of them Han Chinese. More than 1,600 were injured, official figures show.
At least eight people have been sentenced to death for murder and other crimes during the rioting, and nine other people have been executed, Chinese state media have reported.