China on Tuesday blasted a U.S. decision to release five Chinese Muslims from the Guantánamo Bay detention center to seek asylum in Albania, describing them as suspected terrorists and demanding their return.
A European-based Uighur Muslim activist said the men would face the death penalty or torture if they were sent back to China.
The five Chinese were held in Guantánamo for several years after being picked up during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The United States said last week it was letting them go to Albania after concluding they posed no terrorist threat to the U.S., but might face persecution if returned to China.
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Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said Tuesday that the men are suspected of being members of a group accused of waging a violent separatist campaign in China's northwestern Muslim region of Xinjiang.
"The five people accepted by the Albanian side are by no means refugees but terrorist suspects, " Liu said at a news briefing. "We think they should be repatriated to China.
"Accepting the Guantánamo suspects as refugees violates the U.N. Charter and international law, " Liu said, adding Beijing was urging U.S. and Albanian authorities "to send them back as soon as possible."
Beijing says the group - the Xinjiang-based East Turkestan Islamic Movement - has links to al Qaeda and has received arms and training from the terror network. But the government hasn't released evidence to support its claims.
"If they are sent to China, they almost certainly, almost 100 percent, face a death sentence, " said Dilxat Raxit, a Uighur Muslim activist in Stockholm, Sweden. "And if they don't get a death sentence they are very likely to face torture in prison."
Manfred Nowak, a U.N. torture investigator, visited Xinjiang last year and said Uighur detainees were among those most likely to be mistreated by Chinese authorities.
Beijing blames Uighur separatists for sporadic bombings and other violence in the massive desert region in China's far northwest. But diplomats and foreign experts are skeptical and say most of the violence stems from personal disputes.
Xinjiang - which abuts several Central Asian nations - is home to about eight million Uighurs, who are ethnically Turkic, not Han Chinese, and have their own distinct culture and language.
Uighur separatists, like some ethnic Tibetans also demanding greater religious and cultural autonomy, are seen as threats by Beijing but as dissidents or human-rights defenders by rights groups and some foreign governments.