Malaysia has freed 11 Uighurs who escaped from immigration detention in Thailand, their lawyer said yesterday, ignoring a request from Beijing to deport the group to China.
In the dramatic breakout in November last year, 25 members of the persecuted minority used blankets to climb out of their cells in a daring predawn escape from immigration detention in southern Thailand.
Eleven of them, all men, escaped overland to neighboring Malaysia, where they were caught and charged with illegal entry.
Southern Thailand and Malaysia share a common border, which is easily penetrable.
The group were freed and flew to Turkey on Tuesday, their lawyer Fahmi Abdul Moin said.
“Prosecutors decided to drop all charges on humanitarian grounds,” he said.
The decision was made after lawyers wrote to the Malaysian attorney general urging that the charges be withdrawn, Fahmi added.
In a faxed comment, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it was looking into the reports, but said it was opposed to “illegal immigration.”
“These people are Chinese and we are firmly against sending them to third countries,” it said. “We hope Malaysia attaches great importance to China’s position and concerns.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) welcomed the group’s release.
“These 11 men faced detention, torture or worse if they were returned to China,” HRW deputy director for Asia Phil Robertson said.
China had asked Malaysia’s previous government to repatriate the group in February, but new Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has taken a more independent stand with Beijing.
Since coming to power in May, Mahathir has canceled more than US$20 billion of infrastructure projects backed by Chinese firms, including railways and gas pipelines.
Mahathir’s predecessor, former Malaysian prime minster Najib Razak, was seen as too friendly with Beijing.
Najib’s government last year deported to China 29 Uighurs it said were involved with Islamic militants.
A UN panel in August cited estimates that up to 1 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are held in internment camps.
A scathing US congressional report released this week accused China of the unprecedented repression of its ethnic minorities, including Uighurs, with authoritarian tactics potentially constituting “crimes against humanity.”
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