Two senior U.S. lawmakers who co-chair a commission monitoring human rights in China criticized Malaysia on Wednesday for its decision to repatriate nearly a dozen ethnic Uyghurs last month and called on Beijing to reveal the whereabouts of the men.
Republican Representative Chris Smith and Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown, chair members of the bipartisan, bicameral Congressional-Executive Commission on China, also urged Malaysia not to deport five Uyghur asylum-seekers still in custody.
"Forced returns of Uyghurs to China reflect a blatant disregard for international law, not only by the countries deporting Uyghurs, but by the Chinese government, which is complicit in their return and responsible for egregious rights abuses within its borders," Chris Smith said.
Senator Sherrod Brown noted that the deportation to China was only the latest deportation of Uyghur refugees by countries that have been swayed by the Asian giant’s influence through large trade deals and aid packages.
In recent years, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos have all repatriated the Muslim Uyghurs, allegedly following pressure from Chinese authorities.
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.
"Tragically, the deported Uyghur men face the real threat of torture, arbitrary detention, and abuse back in China," Brown said.
"The Chinese government has long waged a harsh campaign of suppression in Xinjiang that violates international law, and it appears to have conscripted its neighbors to help carry out its oppressive policies."
Smith urged Beijing to “end its oppressive policies toward the Uyghurs, stop enlisting its neighbors in its campaigns of suppression, respect the asylum seeker and refugee designations of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), and ensure the fundamental rights and freedoms of all its citizens."
The deported men were part of a larger group of 16 Uyghurs who were detained by Malaysian authorities on Aug. 6 in separate raids in the capital Kuala Lumpur and in the country’s southern Johor Bahru city, which lies across a narrow strait from Singapore.
Malaysian authorities defended the deportation, saying that the 11 men who were sent back were part of a human trafficking ring that had smuggled other Chinese citizens into the country through Thailand before providing them with fake documentation to travel on to third countries.
An official with the UNHCR in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur said the agency had tried to meet with the men before they were deported but were refused permission by Malaysian authorities.
Charges of involvement in human trafficking do not preclude access to UNHCR procedures or permit deportation to China, according to international law.
Uyghur residents of Malaysia told RFA at the time that at least three of the five Uyghurs who remain in Malaysian custody hold documents classifying them as “People of Concern” by the UNHCR.
All five have formally sought asylum with the agency.
Uyghur residents also said that one of the 11 deported Uyghurs had married a Malaysian woman and was living in the country legally.
They said that as one of the few countries in Southeast Asia that had not deported Uyghurs to China, majority-Muslim Malaysia had been sought out by members of the minority ethnic group for refuge.
Following the deportation, the London-based Amnesty International said in a statement that it had “very real concerns for the safety of these asylum seekers given the level of repression that Uyghurs face in China,” adding that Malaysia was in “flagrant breach of international law” for deporting the men.
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 Pakistan and Malaysia, Thai authorities in August turned over a Uyghur man to Chinese authorities in Bangkok, according to exiled activists.
Cambodia deported the majority of 22 Uyghurs who sought refuge status through the UNHCR shortly after they fled China in the aftermath of the 2009 ethnic violence in Urumqi.
China also used its influence in May to convince Kazakh authorities to deport another Uyghur, Ershidin Israil, a former geography teacher, who was initially given refugee status by the UNHCR and accepted for resettlement by Sweden.
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 by Joshua Lipes.