Eleven ethnic Uygur Muslims from China, missing since their dramatic escape from a Thai jail last year, have been detained in Malaysia and Beijing wants them back, according to sources familiar with the matter.
A total of 20 Uygurs broke out of a cell near the Thai-Malaysian border in November by digging holes in the wall and using blankets as ladders. The escapees were part of a group of more than 200 Uygurs detained in Thailand in 2014.
Members of the group identified themselves as Turkish citizens and asked to be sent to Turkey but more than 100 were forcibly returned to China in July 2015, a move that sparked international condemnation, including from rights groups who feared they could face torture in China.
Malaysia said two days after the escape that it had arrested one of the Uygurs who had crossed the border to its northern state of Kedah, and that he would be handed over to Thailand.
But the Muslim-majority Southeast Asian country has not disclosed any further Uygur arrests since.
Beijing accuses separatist extremists among the Uygur minority of plotting attacks on China’s Han majority in the restive far western region of Xinjiang and other parts of the country.
Beijing has been accused of rights abuses in Xinjiang, torture of Uygur detainees and tight control on their religion and culture. It denies wrongdoing. Over the years, hundreds, possibly thousands, of Uygurs have escaped unrest in Xinjiang by travelling clandestinely via Southeast Asia to Turkey.
Three sources who did not want to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter said Malaysia had detained the 11 Uygurs in recent weeks in the north of the country. They said China was in talks with Malaysia on their deportation.
Some Western foreign missions were trying to dissuade them from sending the Uygurs to China, the sources said.
“They [Malaysia] are under great pressure from China to hand them over to China and not to Thailand,” one of the sources said.
Malaysia’s home ministry and the prime minister’s department did not respond to a request for comment.
When asked about the case, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he was not aware of it.
However, combating illegal immigration was, in principle, the shared responsibility of the international community, he told a news briefing.
“China will continue to deepen law enforcement and security cooperation with relevant countries and will crack down on illegal immigration activities in accordance with the law, to jointly protect regional security and stability. This accords with the common interests of all sides,” he said.
China earlier urged Thailand to “quickly bring to justice” the 20 that broke out of the detention centre.
Despite saying in November it would send the one escapee back to Thailand, Malaysia has in the past sent some Uygurs detained in the country to China.
In September, deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said Malaysia had since 2011 arrested 29 Uygur “militants” involved with Islamic State and deported them to China, Malaysian state news agency Bernama reported.
In 2014, Malaysia detained 155 Uygurs, more than half of them children, who were found crammed into two flats in the capital, Kuala Lumpur. It is not clear if they were sent to China.
Two of the sources said Malaysia had not yet made a decision on whether to send the recently detained 11 to China, while the third source said deportation to China was likely.
Malaysia may be reluctant to hand the Uygurs to China due to “lack of transparency” on what happened to those sent back before, one source said.
Exiled ethnic Uygur leader Rebiya Kadeer called on Thailand and any country that may find the Uygurs to treat them according to international law and not hand them over to China.