KUALA LUMPUR—Malaysia has freed from detention 11 ethnic Uyghur Muslims who fled to the southeast Asian nation after a Thai jailbreak last year, and sent them to Turkey, their lawyer said on Oct. 11, disregarding China’s request to hand them to Beijing.
The move is likely to strain ties with China, already tested by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Since his stunning election victory in May, he has canceled more than $20 billion worth of projects awarded to Chinese companies.
Prosecutors in Muslim-majority Malaysia dropped immigration charges against the Uyghurs on humanitarian grounds; they arrived in Turkey after flying out of Kuala Lumpur on Oct. 9, their lawyer Fahmi Moin said.
“The charges were withdrawn because the attorney general’s chambers agreed to the (appeal) from our side,” he told Reuters.
Malaysia’s immigration department, home ministry, and attorney general’s office didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment; China’s foreign ministry also didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The men had been detained and charged with illegally entering Malaysia after last November’s daring prison break, in which they punched holes in a prison wall and used 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 Malaysia on the transfer to China, which has been accused of persecuting Uyghurs.
China is believed to be holding up to one million ethnic Uyghurs, the United Nations human-rights panel said in August. Uyghurs and other Muslims are held in concentration camp-like facilities, known as “re-education” centers, are forbidden from using Islamic greetings, must learn Mandarin Chinese, and also sing propaganda songs, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.
U.S. lawmakers have proposed legislation on Oct. 10 that urges President Donald Trump to condemn “gross violations” of human rights and to press for closure of the “re-education camps” in Xinjiang. The proposal would place sanctions on China that include banning sales of U.S.-made goods or services to Xinjiang state agents and the barring of certain Chinese entities—including the Xinjiang police bureau—from purchasing U.S.-made equipment that might be used for surveillance.
Xinjiang has been transformed into a vast security state, packed with police stations, street cameras, and security checkpoints at which electronic identity cards are scanned. The Chinese regime has used the excuse of potential Islamic threats, “extremism” and ethnic riots to crack down on the Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups, especially in Xinjiang.
Over the years, hundreds, possibly thousands, of Uyghurs have escaped the unrest by traveling clandestinely via Southeast Asia to Turkey.
The Uyghurs 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 Uyghurs 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 supporting Muslim communities against persecution.
By A. Ananthalakshmi. Epoch Times staff Emily O’Neill contributed to this report.