STRASBOURG, France (CN) – The European Court of Human Rights on Thursday ordered Bulgaria to halt its deportation of a group of Uighur refugees, on the grounds that they could be tortured or killed by Chinese authorities.
The Strasbourg-based court found that the group of five Chinese nationals, all Uighur Muslims, “would be at real risk of arbitrary detention and imprisonment, as well as ill-treatment and even death” if returned to China.
The Uighurs are a Turkic ethnic group who mostly live in Xinjiang, an autonomous region in northwest China. Since 2017, Beijing has cracked down on the predominately Muslim group, forcing an estimated 1.8 million Uighurs into some 1,300 to 1,400 “re-education” camps.
Thousands of Uighurs have fled the country, including the five involved in this case. The group, who range in age from 31 to 36, were all living in Turkey prior to illegally crossing the border into Bulgaria in July 2017. For their own safety, their full names are not used in court records.
They were detained by Bulgarian police and applied for asylum. In December 2017, the Bulgarian State Refugees Agency denied their asylum claim, a decision which was later upheld by a Bulgarian court.
According to the Bulgarian government, there “did not seem to amount to systemic exposure of Uighurs to a practice of ill-treatment,” despite a United Nations condemnation of their treatment in China.
Thursday’s ruling cited a number of reports from the United States, the United Kingdom and Human Rights Watch on the mistreatment of Uighurs in China. A report from the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs found that Uighurs had their passports confiscated, restrictions were placed on the celebration of religious holidays and Islamic literature was banned.
Bulgaria has long been under fire for mistreating refugees. Some asylum seekers are forced to pay bribes for food and shelter and Bulgaria imposes criminal penalties on anyone caught crossing the border illegally.
Founded in 1959, the European Court of Human Rights is an international court, established by the European Convention on Human Rights, which handles cases on human, civil and political rights.
Bulgaria can appeal the decision. If it chooses not to, the decision becomes final in three months.