Malaysia is in talks with Thailand over the fate of 11 Uyghurs who escaped from a Thai jail last year, the Malaysian deputy prime minister said Tuesday, amid demands from Beijing that they be sent to China.
Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said his country would resolve the issue diplomatically and in a way that did not offend any country.
“We are talking with the Thais,” said Zahid, who is also the home minister.
The 11 men were among 20 Uyghurs who broke out of their detention cells in southern Thailand in November, according to Malaysian officials.
“We will take action that will not hurt the feelings of any country,” Zahid told reporters in Kuala Lumpur, without elaborating. “The decision, God willing, would be the best decision.”
When asked whether Malaysia planned to send the Uyghurs back to Thailand, the deputy prime minister replied, “I’m not saying that, but we will have further negotiations on diplomacy and security with countries involved.”
He said Malaysia would take into account concerns articulated by human rights groups from the region and other parts of the world.
Thai officials could not be reached immediately for comment.
Earlier this month, BenarNews reported that unidentified Chinese officials had been in touch with Malaysia to arrange the possible repatriation of the Uyghurs to China.
The escapees had been interrogated but were not believed to be linked to any militant groups, according to two Malaysian security officials who provided the information separately on condition of anonymity.
The officials did not say when the Uyghurs were taken into custody.
On Feb. 9, New York-based Human Rights Watch called on Malaysia to ensure that the detained Uyghurs were not forcibly sent to China where they faced “credible threats of imprisonment and torture.”
The eleven should be given “urgent access” to proceedings by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to determine their status as refugees, the rights watchdog said.
Meanwhile, the United States expressed concerns over the possible deportations of the Uyghurs to China.
“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,” a State Department official told BenarNews this month.
Uyghurs are from China’s western Xinjiang region where, rights groups said, heavy-handed rule by the authorities have forced many from the Muslim minority to flee abroad.
The 20 who escaped from the Thai detention center in November 2017 were among more than 200 Uyghurs detained in March 2014 after being found at a popular tourist spot in southern Thailand’s Songkhla province. It was not clear how they had arrived there.
The Uyghurs, who speak a Turkic language, claimed then that they were Turkish and demanded they be allowed to travel to Turkey, but Thailand kept them under detention as authorities tried to verify their citizenship.
Tensions have remained high in Xinjiang, where Uyghurs have long complained of pervasive discrimination, and religious and cultural repression under Chinese rule.
China blames Uyghurs for “terrorist” attacks, but rights groups have accused Chinese police of Uyghur households and restricting their Islamic practices, among other restrictions that curb their freedom.
Last month, Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews, quoted an unnamed security official as saying that about 120,000 ethnic Uyghurs were being held in political “re-education camps” in the Kashgar prefecture of northwest China’s Xinjiang region alone.