Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad confirmed on Monday that his government had freed 11 ethnic Uyghur Muslims, saying the refugees had not broken laws in his country, in a move that defied Beijing's request that they be repatriated.
Malaysia allowed the Uyghurs to depart for Turkey last week after dropping immigration charges against them, the men's lawyer told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news site, on Thursday.
"They have done nothing wrong in this country, so they are released," Mahathir told reporters in parliament.
China, which had asked for their extradition, said Friday that it "resolutely" opposed Malaysia's decision to release the 11 Uyghurs, according to Reuters.
"These people are all Chinese nationals. We resolutely oppose them being deported to a third country," Reuters reported China's Foreign Ministry as saying in a statement.
The 11 men were part of a group of 20 who fled to Malaysia in November 2017 after escaping from a detention center in southern Thailand by drilling holes in a wall.
Their capture and detention became known in February when Chinese officials requested they be returned to Beijing.
Malaysia was under pressure from China to return the Uyghurs, but some Western diplomatic missions sought to dissuade Kuala Lumpur from sending them back, local reports said.
In August this year, Mahathir announced the postponement of the Chinese-funded $20 billion East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project and a natural gas pipeline project in Sabah. The 93-year-old leader made the comment to reporters in Beijing during his five-day trip to China, saying Malaysia could not afford the projects.
During the campaign for the May general elections, Mahathir attacked what he called "unfair" deals with China, approved by his predecessor Najib Razak, who is facing graft charges related to a multibillion-dollar embezzlement scandal linked to the state fund 1MDB.
James Chin, Asia Institute Director at the University of Tasmania, told BenarNews this was not the first time that Kuala Lumpur had allowed Uyghurs to leave Malaysia for a third country.
"This is a sensitive issue and we might see China responding to it. But this is not the first time that we allowed a group of Uyghurs to leave Malaysia for a third country and China is aware of this," he said. "The last time it happened was under PM Najib but I am not sure about the details."
China has rejected allegations raised by a U.N. panel in August that as many as one million Uyghurs are being held in what resembles a "massive internment camp" in the restive Xinjiang region, where Beijing has spent decades trying to suppress pro-independence sentiment.
According to lawyer Fahmi Abdul Moin, who represented the 11 Uyghurs, Malaysian authorities freed his clients, and allowed them to fly to Turkey after dropping the immigration charges against them.
Fahmi had asked that the immigration charges be cancelled, saying that systematic oppression of the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang had forced many of them to flee their country.
"As such, my clients are victims of the ongoing turmoil in the Xinjiang province and were forced to escape," Fahmi told BenarNews on Thursday.
Chinese authorities had earlier denied the existence of internment camps, but said petty criminals had been sent to "employment training centers."
China's state-run news agency Xinhua quoted a senior Chinese official as saying Saturday that Muslims in Xinjiang must practice "Chinese-style Islam" to promote ethnic solidarity and religious harmony in the troubled region.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news site.
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