n a decision sure to further anger Beijing, a group of 11 Uighur detainees have been flown to Turkey, not China, after Malaysian authorities dropped the immigration charges against them earlier this week.
The 11 were part of a group of more than 200 Uighurs who fled to Thailand in 2014, only to be captured in a raid by police there. In 2015, the Thai government faced international condemnation after electing to return about half of the group to China. In response to the backlash, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said: “If we send them back (to China) and there is a problem that is not our fault”.
After that, the remaining Uighur detainees were left in limbo until last November, when 20 of them staged a daring prison break from the facility where they were being held in southern Thailand, punching holes through the outside wall of their cell before using blankets as ropes to lower themselves to the ground. The detention center was located near the Malaysian border and 11 of them managed to make it to the Muslim-majority country before being detained again for illegal entry.
However, on Tuesday, the 11 Uighurs flew instead to Turkey after having the charges against them dropped by Malaysian prosecutors on “humanitarian grounds,” according to their lawyer Fahmi Abdul Moin. In trying to secure their release, Fahmi had reportedly argued that the Uighurs had been forced to flee their homeland because of ethnic and religious persecution by the Chinese government.
In recent years, China has launched a sweeping security and religious crackdown in Xinjiang, claiming that such measures are necessary because of the threat that terrorist groups pose in the region. It’s been estimated that as many as 1 million Uighurs and other Muslims are being held in secretive detention centers in the region, which are tasked with transforming the thoughts of detainees in order to counter extremism.
Amid this crackdown, hundreds and perhaps even thousands of Uighurs have fled their homeland, attempting to make their way to sanctuary in Turkey via Southeast Asia. Beijing has called on other countries to help secure their return, accusing Uighurs living outside of China of helping to fund and fight with separatist groups intent on creating an independent East Turkestan.
Malaysia’s reluctance to give in to pressure from China will likely further strain ties between the two nations. Already, new prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has found himself on Beijing’s bad side after canceling more than $20 billion worth of China-backed projects in August.