The Chinese government wants Albania to return five Chinese Muslims, saying they are terrorists, not political refugees. The United States recently released the five men from its prison at Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba. They arrived in Albania last week seeking asylum. There are fears the men, who are from the Uighur ethnic minority group, could face torture and execution if returned to China.
The freed men are among at least a dozen Chinese Uighurs detained by U.S. security forces in the aftermath of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.
After holding the five men for four years in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the U.S. government decided that they posed little threat to security. They were released last week.
U.S. authorities did not send them back to China because of fears they would face persecution. However, Washington did not grant them asylum. Several other countries also declined to offer them shelter. Eventually, predominantly Muslim Albania agreed to take them.
That decision has upset China, which says the men were part of a separatist group fighting to create an independent Uighur homeland in Xinjiang province. On Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao repeated Beijing's demand that the five be returned to China.
"The East Turkistan terrorist force is part of international terrorism and has close relations to al Qaida and the Taleban," said Liu. "This act by the U.S. and Albania strongly violates international law and relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions. We express our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to it."
However, political scientist Barry Sautman at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology thinks China will do little more than issue a request for extradition and then drop the issue. He says if the men were returned to China it would place the country's judiciary under unwanted international scrutiny.
"I think they would almost certainly face trial but the question would be that they would be tried about," said Sautman. "They could just linger on in jail and of course they could face torture. I think execution is probably not likely that they a background of being known to the U.S. government."
The Albanian government has said it will process the men's asylum applications according to local and international law.
The Uighur community primarily lives in Xinjiang province in western China, bordering Afghanistan and Central Asia. Most Uighurs are Muslims and they are culturally linked to communities in Central Asia.
The Uighurs and some international human rights groups have complained that Beijing has used harsh methods to repress their religion and culture. More than a decade ago, a separatist movement arose that was blamed for a series of bombings and other attacks, but it has been largely suppressed in the past few years.
A United Nations special representative on torture last year visited China and said torture was still commonly used in the country's prisons, particularly among Uighurs, Tibetans and other ethnic minority groups.