China has reportedly asked Malaysia to send back 11 Uyghur Muslims detained after they escaped from detention in Thailand last year, amid calls from rights groups for the refugees to be offered asylum.
Eleven Uyghurs, who the Malaysian media said were among 20 escapees, have been held in Malaysia and were the subject of talks with China over their deportation.
It has been claimed that Malaysia is under great Chinese pressure to hand the Uyghurs over and not to Thailand, while some western envoys were calling for them to be granted asylum.
“Uyghurs forcibly returned to China face credible threats of imprisonment and torture, so it’s critical that Malaysia does not forcibly expel to China anyone the Chinese claim is a Uyghur,” said Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Malaysian authorities should allow these individuals access to a fair process to determine their refugee claims, not ship them to China based on Beijing’s demands.”
Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said: ”We have received an official request from China to extradite the 11 Uyghurs,” according to the state-run Bernama agency.
Zahid, also home affairs minister, said Malaysia was considering the request and “whether those 11 individuals were involved in any terror activities”.
He denied that Malaysia was facing any Chinese pressure to grant their deportation.
China accuses Uyghur separatists of plotting attacks in Xinjiang, its largest province, and elsewhere in the country. The whereabouts and well-being of those who have been returned are unknown.
“Past cases have shown that Uyghurs returned to China are almost always at risk of persecution,” Adams added. “Malaysia needs to ensure that these 11 people are protected and not sent into harm’s way.”
Numerous ethnically Turkic Uyghurs have fled China through Asean members with Turkey often the final destination.
Last September 2017, Zahid said Malaysia had arrested 29 Uyghur “militants” involved with so-called Islamic State since it began sharing biometric data with China in 2011.
The 20 Uyghur are reported to have fled a cell near the Malaysian border in November by digging holes in the wall and using blankets as ladders. Five of them were recaptured in Thailand. They were among more than 200 Uyghurs detained in Thailand in 2014.
More than 100 were forcibly returned to China in July 2015.
Radio Free Asia quoted sources saying that 11 Uyghurs deported to China from Malaysia in August 2011 were subsequently imprisoned for “separatism.”
In 2014, Ilham Tohti, a respected Uyghur economist and peaceful critic of Beijing, was sentenced to life in prison for “separatism”.
A Uyghur protest in Washington in 2009. Picture credit: Flickr