China has asked Malaysia to deport 11 ethnic Uygur Muslims who were part of a group that escaped from Thailand’s immigration detention centre, the Malaysian deputy premier said on Saturday.
In November, a group of 25 Uygurs used blankets to climb out of their cells in southern Thailand in a daring predawn escape.
Southern Thailand and Malaysia share a common border which is easily penetrable.
It is the first time Kuala Lumpur has confirmed that it detained the escaped Uygurs after human rights groups and the United States urged the predominantly Muslim Southeast Asian country against sending the Uygurs back to China.
The Uygurs are a Muslim minority that rights and exile groups said they faced repression in northwestern China.
Deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is also the minister for internal security, said China, a close economic and political ally of Malaysia has made request for the 11 Uygurs.
“We have received an official request from China to extradite the 11 Uygurs,” he was quoted as saying by the official Bernama news agency in the southern Johor state.
“Our principle is that if a country requests that their people be extradited, we [will consider it] based on the extradition agreement,” he added.
Ahmad Zahid said Malaysia will consider China’s request upon completion of police investigations into the 11 Uygurs if they were involved in terror activities.
According to other media reports, Zahid denied Malaysia was facing any pressure from China for the Uygurs’ deportation.
On Friday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Malaysia not to deport the 11 Uygurs.
“Uygurs forcibly returned to China face credible threats of imprisonment and torture, so it’s critical that Malaysia does not forcibly expel to China anyone the Chinese claim is a Uygur,” HRW Asia director Brad Adams said in a statement.
The United States on Friday also expressed concerns following a Reuters report on Thursday about the possible deportation.
“We are concerned by media reports regarding Malaysia’s possible deportation of Uygur individuals to China,” a US State Department spokesperson told Reuters.
“We urge Chinese authorities to uphold international human rights norms with regard to any individuals who have been returned to China, and to ensure transparency, due process, and the safety and proper treatment of these individuals.”
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 China.
China 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.
In 2017, Malaysia said it had deported 29 Uygurs suspected to be involved with Islamic militants.
Two years earlier Thailand deported more than 100 Uygurs back to China sparking an outcry.
Additional reporting by Reuters