UPDATED at 09:20 a.m. EST on 10/12/18
The Malaysian government sent 11 Uyghur refugees from China’s Xinjiang province to Turkey after dropping immigration charges against them in defiance of a request by Beijing that they be returned there, their attorney said Thursday.
The move came after a Kuala Lumpur Court granted a request by prosecutors to apply a discharge not amounting to acquittal. Fahmi Abdul Moin, a lawyer representing the Uyghurs, said his team sent a letter in July to the Attorney General’s Chamber asking that the charges be dropped.
Officials with the Attorney General’s Chamber, as well as the home minister and his deputy could not be reached for comment late on Thursday.
Fahmi said he had raised the issue of the alleged systematic oppression of the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang and discrimination against them by the Chinese government, which have forced many to flee the country.
“As such, my clients are part of the victims of the ongoing turmoil in the Xinjiang province and were forced to escape,” Fahmi told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news site.
He told prosecutors that his clients had entered Malaysia as a temporary transit point and hoped to sort out their refugee status with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) before joining an existing Uyghur community in Turkey.
Fahmi said they flew from Malaysia to Turkey on Wednesday morning.
Escape from Thailand
The Uyghurs fled to Malaysia after escaping from a detention center in southern Thailand in November 2017. The 11 were part of a group of 20 who broke out of the center by drilling holes in a wall.
Their capture and detention in Malaysia for violating the Immigration Act by entering the country illegally became known in February when Chinese officials requested they be returned to Beijing.
Later that month, then-Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said Malaysia was in talks with Thailand to return the Uyghurs, while the government led by then-Prime Minister Najib Razak sought a diplomatic solution to the case.
“We will take action that will not hurt the feelings of any country,” Zahid said at the time.
Dolkun Isa, the German-based president of the World Uyghur Congress, had urged the Malaysian government to not send them to China and to respect the international principle of non-refoulement by working with UNHCR and resettling the refugees in a safe third country.
“When Uyghurs are handed to Chinese authorities, they will face torture and jail, they probably will go missing or face death,” he told Radio Free Asia, a sister-entity of BenarNews.
He said Uyghurs sent from Malaysia to China had disappeared.
The decision by Kuala Lumpur to release the Uyghurs move could further strain Malaysia’s relationship with China.
Since assuming power in May, the government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has halted major Chinese projects including a railway and two pipeline projects approved by Najib, citing a mounting national debt.
In an interview with Bloomberg News, Mahathir’s likely successor as prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, called for formal talks with China regarding its crackdown against the Muslim minority that has included the reported incarceration of Uyghurs in secret detention camps.
Anwar said the Malaysian government had raised the Uyghurs with the Chinese government, which sees them as an internal issue.
“This has gone out into the mainstream media as an issue, and I believe we should use a proper forum to start highlighting these issues and seek this understanding from the Chinese authorities,” he told Bloomberg.
Anwar also shared his thoughts on why Muslim governments have been silent on the Uyghurs.
“They’re scared. Nobody wants to say anything,” he said.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news site.