US urges Malaysia protect Uighurs facing deportation

Washington: The United States today urged Malaysia to provide temporary protection to 11 Uighur Muslims reportedly held there, warning they could face torture or persecution if forcibly returned to China.

Human Rights Watch says the Uighurs were among more than 200 detained in neighbouring Thailand in 2014. Thailand deported more than 100 of the group to China in July 2015 in a move that brought international condemnation.

The whereabouts and well-being of those who were returned are unknown, the rights group says.

State Department spokesman Michael Cavey said the US has called on Malaysia to grant the UN refugee agency access to the Uighurs to determine their eligibility for resettlement in another country.

He called for temporary protection to any of the individuals “who may be subject to torture or persecution if returned against their will.”

Rights groups say hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Uighurs have fled China in recent years. The Turkic-speaking Muslim minority group complains of harsh cultural and religious suppression in the Xinjiang region in China’s far west and severe punishment of those repatriated. Beijing has accused Uighur separatists of terrorism in Xinjiang, where hundreds of people have died in ethnic violence.

The 11 Uighurs in Malaysian custody are believed to be part of a group of 20 people who escaped from immigration detention in southern Thailand in November.

Last week, Malaysian deputy premier Ahmad Zahid Hamid said China has officially requested the extradition of the Uighurs, state news agency Bernama reported.

Separately, more than 40 other Uighurs are believed to be held in Thailand.