Chinese authorities made a false claim to convince the Thai government to extradite a Uyghur last month for his alleged involvement in ethnic riots, according to a Uyghur exile group.
Nur Muhemmed was arrested by local police on Aug. 6 for illegally entering Thailand and was handed over to Chinese authorities in the capital Bangkok, making him one of the most recent of a number of Uyghurs who have been repatriated following pressure from Chinese authorities.
Reports by Japanese media suggest that Muhemmed may have fled Urumqi after Chinese authorities accused him of participating in ethnic unrest in the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in July 2009. At least 200 people were killed in the riots.
The Chinese Embassy in Bangkok also told Thai Immigration Bureau officials that Muhemmed was part of a Uyghur “terrorist” network responsible for bomb attacks and riots in Xinjiang.
But according to new evidence provided by Ilshat Hasan, vice-president of the Washington-based Uyghur American Association (UAA), Muhemmed had already been living in Thailand for nearly nine years as an illegal immigrant after moving to the country to escape religious persecution in China.
“As an illegal immigrant with no travel documents, and as a father of two children he had after marrying a local woman, Muhemmed had never left Thailand until his deportation,” Hasan told RFA.
Hasan said that Muhemmed moved to Thailand at the end of 2002, living in Chiangmai, in northern Thailand, for several months before relocating to the capital to apply for political asylum with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
While in the process of applying for asylum, Hasan said, Muhemmed met a Thai woman named Fatima whom he married in 2004. The couple had a daughter, named Sekine, in 2005.
“His application for asylum was denied by the UNHCR in 2006, and after the decision the family moved back to Chiangmai, where Muhemmed struggled to support his family,” Hasan said.
“When the July 5 [Urumqi] incident occurred, he was watching the events unfold on a television at the restaurant where he was working as a dishwasher.”
Escape from persecution
Hasan said that Muhemmed had left Urumqi for Thailand years earlier after a religious class he attended in his neighborhood was broken up by police who accused attendees of holding an illegal gathering.
Not long after the class was targeted, state security forces began to monitor Muhemmed and the other students, prompting him to leave the country without a passport.
“As an illegal immigrant, Muhammed always had difficulty finding a job. Most of the time, his family had to rely solely on Fatima’s business hawking goods on the street,” Hasan said.
In January this year, the family moved back to Bangkok after Muhemmed heard that he could obtain a Thai passport through the black market.
In March, the couple had a second daughter.
“When he was accused of being a terrorist and sent back to China, his daughter Sekine was five years old and his daughter Sayida was only three months old,” Hasan said.
At the time, Dolkun Isa, general secretary of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), had called on Thailand to ignore pressure from the Chinese to repatriate Muhemmed, where Isa said he could face torture and even death upon his return.
“It is no secret how dangerous the current situation in East Turkestan [Xinjiang] is after the Hotan and Kashgar incidents,” Isa said, referring to deadly attacks in the two Silk Road cities by Uyghur groups against Chinese security personnel in July.
“It is easy to imagine what the fate of a Uyghur refugee might be in the case of a deportation at this time,” he said.
According to a Uyghur friend in Thailand who asked to remain anonymous, Muhemmed rarely called his parents unless there was an urgent need.
Several months ago, he said, Muhemmed had received information that his father was sick and had begun calling his family regularly.
“The telephone calls likely aroused the suspicion of the Chinese intelligence service and they decided to arrest him,” the friend said.
“This is the only reason I can imagine why he would have been targeted by China.”
Another Uyghur, a student in a Southeast Asian country, said that Muhemmed’s long disappearance would have alerted the attention of Chinese authorities.
“Disappearing for nine years without official knowledge—of course that would create a big question mark in the minds of China’s state security officials,” the Uyghur student said.
“For Uyghurs these days, everything is a crime, including disappearing, speaking your mind, or even thinking something deeply. This shows how tense relations have become between the Uyghur people and the Chinese state.”
China has used its economic influence in the region to detain and repatriate a number of Uyghurs authorities said were wanted in connection with deadly rioting that gripped the Xinjiang capital Urumqi in 2009, although they did not publicly provide any evidence of their involvement.
In the months that followed the violence in Urumqi, hundreds of Uyghurs were detained and at least nine were executed.
Aside from Thailand, Malaysian authorities in mid-August turned over 11 Uyghurs to Chinese authorities they had accused of involvement in a human trafficking ring, drawing criticism from two senior U.S. lawmakers.
Pakistan deported five Uyghurs to China weeks before the Malaysian extradition. The country had previously deported “Xinjiang separatists” to China on at least three occasions.
Cambodia deported the majority of 22 Uyghurs who sought refuge status there through the UNHCR shortly after they fled China in the aftermath of the 2009 ethnic violence in Urumqi.
In recent years, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos have all repatriated the Muslim Uyghurs, allegedly following pressure from Chinese authorities.
Many of Xinjiang’s estimated 8 million Uyghurs chafe at the strict controls on their religion and culture that China enforces and resent influxes of Han Chinese migrant workers and businesses.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Reported and translated by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.