Malaysia has secretly deported six Uyghur asylum seekers to China even though they could be persecuted or tortured on their return home, according to a U.S.-based rights group, citing "credible" sources and criticizing the move as unlawful.
The Uyghurs were repatriated on Dec. 31 in "grave violation of international law" and ahead of a visit to Malaysia this week by China's top political advisor Jia Qinglin, Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
This is the second time predominantly Muslim Malaysia has deported asylum-seeking mostly Uyghur Muslims back to China. In 2011, 11 Uyghurs were deported and they were thrown in jail on their return on separatism charges.
Malaysia is among several Asian nations which have bowed to demands by Beijing to repatriate the Uyghur minority fleeing persecution in their homeland in China’s restive northwestern Xinjiang region.
“While Malaysians were celebrating the New Year, their government was forcibly returning Uyghur asylum seekers to a dangerously uncertain fate in China.” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, which has protested the Malaysian action in a letter to Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak.
“The government has an obligation to explain how this happened, China’s role, and the steps being taken to ensure it doesn’t happen again,” he said in a statement.
Human Rights Watch said the six Uyghur men had been detained earlier in 2012 allegedly for attempting to leave Malaysia on false passports.
While in detention, they were registered with the office of the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR and were permitted to proceed with refugee status determination (RSD) interviews.
"Although all six had asylum claims being reviewed, Malaysian police clandestinely transferred the men in late December into the custody of Chinese authorities, who escorted them from Malaysia to China on a chartered flight," Human Rights Watch said.
Under international law, it is unlawful for any country to return individuals to a place where they are likely to face persecution or torture.
UNHCR spokeswoman Yante Ismail expressed regret that despite the agency's representations to the Malaysian government over the cases of the six men, they had been deported to "a country where their human rights might be at risk," Agence France-Presse reported.
Representatives for Malaysia's Home Ministry, which handles police and security issues, said they could not immediately comment, according to the Associated Press.
The Chinese government frequently accuses ethnic Uyghurs, particularly those seeking asylum, of being terrorists or separatists without providing evidence to substantiate such claims, Human Rights Watch said.
“This isn’t the first time the Malaysian government has violated international law on Beijing’s behalf, but it has the chance to make it the last,” Robertson said.
“Announcing Malaysia’s commitment to protecting refugees and ratifying the refugee conventions would be a good place to start,” he said.
A mother of one of the 11 Uyghurs repatriated by Malaysia in 2011 told RFA’s Uyghur Service in December that her son is serving a three-year sentence for separatism in Hotan prison in Xinjiang, following a secret trial in July.
Friends of his and the other 10 deported men said they have heard that all of them had been thrown in jail for up to 15 years, though they did not wish to be named and the sentences could not be confirmed.
Other countries that have repatriated Uyghurs allegedly following pressure from Chinese authorities are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos.
Jia heads a 60-member delegation on a four-day visit to Malaysia beginning Monday, during which he will sign a series of agreements and open a joint industrial park, Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported.
China hopes Jia's visit makes the "China-Malaysia traditional friendship last forever" and "underscores the "good momentum in strategic [bilateral] cooperation," it said.
Reported by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.