Malaysia defies China by freeing Uygur Muslim detainees

Group that made daring escape from Thai prison last year have been sent to Turkey despite Beijing’s request they be returned to China

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 October, 2018, 11:34am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 October, 2018, 10:11pm

Malaysia has freed from detention 11 ethnic Uygur Muslims who fled to the southeast Asian nation after breaking out of a Thai prison last year, and sent them to Turkey, their lawyer said on Thursday, in disregard of China’s request to hand them over to Beijing.

The move is likely to put extra strain on ties between Beijing and Kuala Lumpur, which have weakened since Mahathir Mohamad was re-elected Malaysia’s prime minister in May and cancelled more than US$20 billion worth of projects awarded to Chinese companies.

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Prosecutors in the Muslim-majority country dropped charges against the Uygurs, aged between 24 and 48, on humanitarian grounds and they arrived in Turkey after flying out of Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday, their lawyer, Fahmi Moin, said.

“The charges were withdrawn because the attorney general’s chambers agreed to the [appeal] from our side,” he said.

China’s foreign ministry said it was in the process of verifying the details with Malaysia and hoped it would “attach great importance” to its concerns. In a faxed statement to Reuters, it said it was against illegal immigration in any form.

“These people are all Chinese nationals. We resolutely oppose them being deported to a third country,” it said.

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Malaysia’s immigration department, home ministry and the attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.

The men were detained and charged with illegally entering Malaysia after last November’s daring prison break, by punching holes in a prison wall and using blankets as ladders.

In February, Reuters reported that Malaysia was under great pressure from China to deport the men there, citing sources. Some Western missions sought to dissuade it from sending them to China, which has been accused of persecuting Uygurs.

Beijing accuses separatist extremists among the Uygur minority of plotting attacks on the Han majority in the restive far western region of Xinjiang and elsewhere.

China has been accused of rights abuses in Xinjiang, torture of Uygur detainees and tight controls on their religion and culture. It denies wrongdoing.

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Over the years, hundreds, possibly thousands, of Uygurs have escaped the unrest by travelling clandestinely via Southeast Asia to Turkey.

The Uygurs in Malaysia were part of a group of more than 200 detained in Thailand in 2014. Although they identified themselves as Turkish citizens and asked to be sent to Turkey, more than 100 were forcibly returned to China in July 2015, sparking international condemnation.

In February, Malaysia said it was considering China’s request to extradite the 11 men. In the past, it has sent some detained Uygurs to China.

Their detention came as Malaysia drew closer to China under former prime minister Najib Razak, but 93-year-old Mahathir, in his second stint as premier, has been vocal in backing Muslim communities against persecution.

He recently criticised Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of neighbouring Myanmar, over the Nobel laureate’s handling of the Rohingya crisis, saying, “We don’t really support her any more.”