Xinjiang suspects reach Cambodia in amnesty quest

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Twenty-two Uygurs now seeking political asylum in Cambodia are separatists who are subject to Chinese law, a Chinese diplomat told Cambodian media yesterday.

Qian Hai, the spokesman for the embassy in Phnom Penh, underlined Beijing's "fundamental" policy that all of those involved in violating Chinese law should be brought to justice.

"For the July affair in Xinjiang, there were many violent criminal acts. It was planned by a very small number of people who want to separate from China, who want to split China," he said, according to the Phnom Penh Post newspaper.

"Those people who have taken part in violent, criminal activities should be prosecuted according to Chinese law. They offended Chinese law and public security."

The Washington Post reported on Thursday that the 22 Uygurs, who allegedly participated the riot in China's far-western Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region on July 5, were seeking asylum in Cambodia. The riot left 197 dead and more than 1,600 injured.

On Friday, a court there condemned to death a Uygur man and woman on charges of murder during riot, as well as a Han Chinese man for killing three people during the counter-attacks two days later, bringing to 17 the number of people sentenced to death.

In Beijing, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn't respond by China Daily's press time to say whether China would request Cambodia to return the Uygurs. The two countries signed an extradition treaty in 1999.

Cambodian government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said earlier that his government would consider carefully any repatriation request from China. He said Cambodia has the right to deny such a request if the people are considered political asylum seekers.

"But if they are purely criminal people and there is a request, we may deport them back," he said.

Toshi Kawauchi, head of the Cambodia office of UNHCR, told China Daily that his agency is working with the Cambodian government to deal with the Uygurs' asylum request.

He said his office works closely with the government to ensure the fulfilment of its obligations under the 1951 convention. Cambodia is one of only two Southeast Asians that have signed it.

Experts are divided on whether those Uygurs should return to China.

Li Wei, director of the center for counterterrorism studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said it's up to Cambodia to decide whether the Uygurs are eligible to seek "political asylum".

"But the international community can't tolerate any criminals, who seek a shield in some other country after crimes," Li said.

Sara Colm, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said Cambodia has an obligation to protect the Uygur asylum seekers under the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention.

Colm said the Cambodian government had in the past shown its willingness to resist the wishes of its close allies in order to protect would-be refugees, citing the wave of Vietnamese Montagnards who sought asylum in the early 2000s.

As at January this year, 164 refugees and 61 asylum seekers were residing in Cambodia, while no refugee returned to the country of origin, according to the UNHCR.

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