PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodia plans to deport at least 20 Muslim Uighurs who fled China after deadly ethnic violence this year, a government official said on Saturday, despite concerns they will face persecution by Beijing.
The Uighurs, 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.
"The Cambodian government is implementing its immigration law. They came to Cambodia illegally without any passports or visas, so we consider them illegal immigrants," said Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong.
Human rights groups say they fear for the lives of the Uighurs if they are deported to China.
"Cambodia will be sending these Uighurs to a terrible fate,
possible execution and likely torture," said Amy Reger, a researcher at the Washington-based Uighur American Association.
She cited 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.
Reger's group received reports at least 20 of the Uighurs were put on a flight to Shanghai early on Saturday. But she said it appeared they had not yet been deported.
Washington is "deeply disturbed" that the Uighurs may be forcibly returned, said John Johnson, U.S. embassy spokesman in Phnom Penh. "The U.S. strongly urges the Cambodian government to honour its commitments under international law."
Cambodia's Foreign Ministry spokesman said he did not know their location.
UN OFFERS HELP
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office said it believed they were still in Cambodia.
"We have conveyed a message to the Cambodian government to refrain from deporting them," said Kitty McKinsey, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR office.
The U.N. body had offered assistance to the Cambodian government to resolve the case, McKinsey said.
Beijing has called the asylum seekers "criminals," although it has offered no evidence to back up the allegations.
Rights groups say Cambodia is bound by a 1951 convention on refugees pledging 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.
When asked about Cambodia's obligations under the 1951 convention, Koy said: "We are implementing our internal laws."
The Uighurs have put Cambodia's leaders in an awkward position ahead of a visit on Sunday by Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping, who is expected to sign 14 agreements related to infrastructure construction, grants and loans.
China is Cambodia's biggest investor, having poured more than $1 billion (617 million pounds) in foreign direct investment into the country.
The July 5 riots, which began with protests against attacks on Uighur workers in south China, killed 197 people, most of them Han Chinese. More than 1,600 were wounded, 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.
(Editing by Jason Szep and Paul Tait)