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.