BEIJING (Reuters) - China has jailed two Muslim Uighurs deported from Cambodia for life, Radio Free Asia reported on Friday, showing no sign of loosening its grip on far-western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region which holds rich deposits of oil and gas.
The sentences -- and deadly clashes this week between police in Sichuan and ethnic Tibetans -- come at a sensitive time for China for whom ensuring stability ahead of a leadership transition later this year is a top priority.
They also precede a visit to the United States by Vice President Xi Jinping, who is seen as China’s leader-in-waiting and who could come under criticism for the government’s handling of the unrest.
Cambodia, the recipient of increasingly large amounts of Chinese investment and trade, was sharply rebuked by human rights groups for deporting the asylum seekers.
Two days after Cambodia deported the Muslim Uighurs in December 2009, Chinese Vice President Xi visited Phnom Penh and signed 14 trade deals worth $850 million.
The U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia broadcast and online news service cited family sources and local authorities in Xinjiang who in turn quoted jail notices they had seen.
It was unclear when the sentences were handed down or what the men had been charged with.
A spokeswoman for the Xinjiang government told Reuters she was not aware of the sentences.
The two Uighurs were among a group of about 20 who had sought asylum in Cambodia following ethic riots between Uighurs and majority Han Chinese in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi in July 2009. Another of the group was jailed for 17 years, Radio Free Asia said, adding that the jail terms of the others were not known because court proceedings were held in secret.
“The imprisonment of these men, who were forcefully deported from a place of refuge, should serve as a wake-up call to the world about the brutal treatment awaiting Uighur asylum seekers who are sent back to China,” Uighur American Association president Alim Seytoff said in a statement posted on the advocacy group’s website.
“The Uighurs in Cambodia were sent back to the very repression they were attempting to flee. We cannot allow the long arm of Chinese pressure to govern the treatment of Uighur asylum seekers in other countries.”
Radio Free Asia, citing rights groups, said the asylum-seekers had fled persecution because they had witnessed Chinese security forces arresting and using lethal force against Uighur demonstrators during the riots that killed nearly 200 people, many of them Han Chinese.
Many Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people native to Xinjiang, resent Chinese rule and controls on their religion, culture and language.
In September, China said it had sentenced four people to death for violence in two Xinjiang cities last summer in another flare-up that left 32 people dead.
Writing by Ken Wills and Judy Hua; Editing by Nick Macfie