China’s official newspaper claimed Sunday that a group of ethnic Uighurs who Thai authorities deported to China this week were on their way to wage holy war in Iraq, Syria or Turkey.
On Thursday, the Thai government repatriated the 109 Uighurs in spite of vocal objections by governmental agencies and prominent rights groups, who warned that the deportees could face harsh persecution in China.
The U.S. Department of State released a statement Thursday condemning the removal of the Uighurs, who it described as seeking asylum, urging the Thai government not to carry out further deportations of Uighurs and warning that the migrants “could face harsh treatment and a lack of due process” in China.
Human rights groups’ warnings were even more dire.
Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s East Asia regional director said, “Time and time again we have seen Uighurs returned to China disappearing into a black hole, with some detained, tortured and in some cases, sentenced to death and executed.”
“It is very shocking and disturbing that Thailand caved in to pressure from Beijing,” Sunai Phasuk, a Thailand researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.
“By forcibly sending back at least 90 Uighurs, Thailand has violated international law. In China they can face serious abuses including torture and disappearance,” Phasuk said.
Uighurs are a majority Muslim ethnic group concentrated mainly in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang. Uighurs speak a language related to Turkish and share religious and ethnic ties with Turkey.
Many of those deported from Thailand Thursday claimed to be Turkish, though the Thai government said it had established that their country of origin was China.
Ethnic violence between Uighurs and China’s Han majority has flared in recent years, prompting thousands of Uighurs to flee China, often in an attempt to reach Turkey.
The Chinese government’s Xinhua News Agency denied that the Uighurs in question were refugees fleeing persecution. Instead, Xinhua characterized them as “repatriated Chinese citizens” and claimed that many were “extremists who want to become ‘jihad fighters’ in the war-torn areas of the Middle East”
Xinhua cited the Chinese Ministry of Public Security as saying that 13 of the Uighurs left China “after being implicated in terrorist activities,” and that two others had escaped detention there.
The Chinese government has described instances of Uighur violence as organized acts of terrorism, claiming that the attackers have close links to foreign jihadist groups. But some Uighur groups, human rights organizations and scholars have suggested that Beijing has intentionally exaggerated the Uighur threat in order to justify its Xianjiang policies, which have included the arrests of moderate Uighur intellectuals and regulations restricting Muslim practices such as fasting during Ramadan.
In Turkey, violent protests against the repatriations caused the Thai government to temporarily close its embassy in the capital city of Ankara and its consulate in Istanbul. The protests came in the midst of unrest in Turkey over reports that the Chinese government was restricting Uighurs in western China from observing the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the BBC reported.