PHNOM PENH —
The Cambodian government is denying reports it deported seven Montagnard asylum seekers back to Vietnam, saying it only sent back Vietnamese farmers who illegally entered the country.
“We did not deport the asylum seekers," said Khiet Chantharith, a spokesman for the national police. "We have an immigration law and are also a signatory to the 1951 convention on refugees. We always abide by the 1951 refugee convention."
Rights workers, however, say the deportees were in fact ethnic Montagnards who had sought political asylum but the Cambodian government failed to give them a proper hearing.
Chhay Thi, Ratanakiri provincial coordinator for the rights group Adhoc, said police in the province did not wait before deporting all seven people on Saturday.
At least 14 Montagnard asylum seekers are still believed to be evading authorities in the forests of eastern Cambodia.
Montagnards, many of whom are Protestants, have long claimed persecution in Vietnam for religious reasons and their aid of U.S. troops during the Vietnam War decades ago. The Montagnards have created political tensions in the past.
In 2000 and 2001, thousands fled to Cambodia. Many were rounded up and returned to Vietnam, although some eventually were given asylum in the United States and other Western countries.
This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Khmer service