Cambodian officials will deport 20 Muslim Uighurs who fled their homeland in China's northwest Xinjiang region after July unrest and a subsequent crackdown.
A Cambodian foreign ministry spokesman said Saturday the Uighurs will be expelled because they entered the country illegally. He did not say when they would be deported or where they would be deported to.
The announcement comes as Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping visits Cambodia on Sunday as part of a four-country tour.
Human rights groups say the Uighurs, who arrived in Cambodia last month, face possible torture and execution if they are returned to China.
However, authorities in China say the Uighurs are under investigation for criminal activities related to ethnic clashes in Xinjiang that killed nearly 200 people.
Theary Seng is a U.S.-trained humans rights lawyer. She says Phnom Penh's relationship with Beijing has jeapordized the Uighurs flight for freedom.
"I think it's a reflection of Cambodia's desire to be on good terms with China," said Seng. "The presence of China is so strong in Cambodia that there is no way that the Cambodian government would allow these refugees to take refuge here in Cambodia."
Christian missionaries helped the Uighurs reach Cambodia last month. They then applied for refugee status at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Phnom Penh. If granted, Cambodia would be compelled to protect them under international law.
"It's very unfortunate that our government is not courageous enough to stand up to China and protect these individuals," she said.
Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim minority. They complain of discrimination along with cultural and economic domination by the country's majority Han Chinese.
China detained hundreds of people since the July clashes between ethnic Uighurs and Han Chinese. At least 17 people have been sentenced to death in connection with the riots.