Seven Uyghurs who broke out of an immigration detention center in northeastern Thailand earlier this year were sentenced last week to two years in jail for the offenses, their lawyer said.
The seven are serving jail terms in a prison in Mukdaharn province, 685 km (428 miles) northeast of Bangkok, after the Mukdaharn provincial court found them guilty, lawyer Wanat Kosasu said.
“All seven are serving terms in the prison for jail break, state property vandalism and intimidating officials,” Wanat told BenarNews by phone on Monday. “They will more likely than not appeal the case.”
The seven are among about 50 Uyghurs remaining in Thailand after more than 400 fled persecution from northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) around 2014 and traveled through Thailand in hope of finding asylum in Turkey, according to Chalida Tajaroensuk, the director of People’s Empowerment Foundation.
The seven had made a failed attempt at a jail break in February 2019, said Chalida, the head of the Thai NGO that has worked to assist Uyghurs in Thailand since 2014.
Their lawyer said five of them also face a charge of robbery for abducting a Thai man and taking his gun following the Jan. 10 jail break. All seven were recaptured three days later.
“They met a villager who was hunting for animals, tied him up and snatched his gun. The plaintiff filed a police report, but [the Uyghurs] wouldn’t sign the paper to acknowledge the charge unless the police also filed a report about their physical attack by other officers,” the lawyer said.
“We are compiling evidence in order to sue the alleged abusive officials,” Wanat said.
He said the robbery case against the Uyghurs is at the police investigation stage.
The Thai-language Thai Rath newspaper reported that Sornchai Rasrikham, the villager in Song Peau village in Mukdaharn, was hunting for rice field rats when the Uyghurs captured him, taking a gun and a longbow before leaving him alone 30 minutes later on the evening of Jan. 10.
Chalida, who visited the Uyghurs in January, said the seven broke out of a cell at Mukdaharn immigration center because they could no longer bear the cramped and unhygienic conditions there.
“They said they would rather be jailed in a better environment with ample room to breathe, in a real prison,” she told BenarNews.
“We are writing to the House Committee on Religion to make sure that they have a facility in which to pray and access to halal foods,” Chalida said.
In 2015, Thailand drew criticism when it forcibly repatriated 100 of the 350 Uyghurs detained in the country to China, despite fears they could be punished on their return, and though it earlier had sent about 170 women and children to Turkey, which has traditionally provided safe haven to Uyghurs fleeing persecution in the XUAR.
A bomb blast at a Hindu shrine in Central Bangkok weeks after the repatriation killed 20 and injured 120 more, and was linked by the Thai police chief at the time to Uyghur militants who sought to avenge Bangkok’s action. Two Uyghur men were arrested and pleaded not guilty. They will have a hearing on May 26.
“In reality, Thailand cannot send them anywhere – not to China because it is scared of a similar bomb attack like the one on the Erawan Shrine in 2015 and international condemnation,” Chalida said. “And not to Turkey because Chinese officials keep checking on all detained Uyghurs every month.”
Authorities in the XUAR have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas in a vast network of internment camps since April 2017.
While Beijing initially denied the existence of internment camps in the XUAR, China last year changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
But reports indicate that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group, cited the conditions in Thai detention Uyghurs have faced as the reason for January’s jail break.
“As a result of such horrible conditions and mistreatment, some had no choice but to flee these detentions,” he told Radio Free Asia, a sister entity of BenarNews.
“These people had committed no crime. Their only crime was to flee Chinese persecution in their homeland. ... They were hoping to escape persecution for a safe haven. They deserve to be protected under international law for the protection of refugees.”
Isa called the sentencing of the seven Uyghurs to two years in prison “a politically motivated decision to appease China,” adding that it would do little to “bring justice to these long-suffering people.”
“I call on the Thai authorities to treat these Uyghur refugees humanely and allow them to leave for a third safe country under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees,” he said.