The Malaysian government should immediately ensure that five Chinese citizens of Uighur ethnicity among at least 16 arrested in raids on August 6, 2011, are not forcibly returned to China, Human Rights Watch said. The Chinese government should account for the whereabouts of at least 11 who already have been removed from Malaysia, Human Rights Watch said.
The Malaysian government should also publicly explain why it violated due process standards when it turned over the Uighurs, including a man married to a Malaysian citizen, Human Rights Watch said. Malaysian police arrested the Uighurs in raids in Kuala Lumpur and Johor Baru. China’s record of torture, disappearance, and arbitrary detention of Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority, puts these people at grave risk of torture if they are returned to China, Human Rights Watch said.
“A recent wave of Uighur forced returns shows the bullying hand of China,” said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch. “Malaysia, Thailand, Pakistan, and all other countries, particularly in the region, should stand together to resist this pressure.”
On the same day the Uighers were arrested in Malaysia, Thai government officials handed over an ethnic Uighur, Nur Muhammed, to waiting Chinese government officials in Bangkok. On August 8, Pakistan deported five Uighurs, including a woman and two children, to China, blindfolded and handcuffed, press reports said.
China should stop pressuring the Malaysian authorities and other governments to violate customary international law against refoulement (forced return), Human Rights Watch said. Other countries should make clear that Uighurs will not be summarily returned to China, but will be accorded due process rights, including the right to seek asylum.
The returns demonstrate a pattern going back to December 19, 2009, when the Cambodian government returned to China 20 Uighurs, including a pregnant woman and two infants, who had been under the protection of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).
The whereabouts and well-being of the Uighurs removed from Thailand, Pakistan, Cambodia, and now Malaysia, remain unknown. In all these cases, the governments removed the Uighurs – sometimes by turning them over to the Chinese embassies –without according them basic due process or, in the case of Cambodia, respecting UNHCR protection status.
In Malaysia, the deputy inspector-general of police, Datuk Seri Khalid Abu Bakar, alleged in media accounts that some of the Uighurs arrested there were involved in human trafficking. But he did not explain why Malaysia handed at least 11 of them over to Chinese government officials instead of prosecuting them under the Malaysian Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act.
“The treatment of these Uighurs is a litmus test for Malaysia’s commitment to basic principles of refugee protection,” Frelick said. “The Malaysian government should have immediately granted UNHCR access to the Uighurs to determine their protection needs, especially since Uighurs are known to be vulnerable to abuse in China.”
After the Chinese government crackdown that followed inter-ethnic clashes in Xinjiang in July 2009, a number of Uighurs fled China and sought to apply for refugee status in other countries. Despite China’s claims that the clashes had been orchestrated by “separatist” forces abroad, many observers pointed to widespread discrimination against Uighurs in China and a long history of political, cultural, and religious repression at the hands of the state as a leading cause of the unrest. The Organization of the Islamic Conference, of which Malaysia is a member, issued a statement, in July 2009, calling upon China to address these root problems.
Human Rights Watch has over the past decade documented serious human rights abuses against Uighurs, who live primarily in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The Chinese government regularly and deliberately conflates expressions of Uighur identity, ranging from use of the Uighur language to religious practices to peaceful calls for self-determination, as evidence of “terrorism, separatism, or treason.” It also uses occasional violent incidents to justify broad denial of rights to Uighurs.
Recent Human Rights Watch research in Xinjiang has documented enforced disappearances, highly politicized trials culminating in the use of the death penalty, and torture in custody. Human Rights Watch believes that many ethnic Uighurs forcibly returned to China would be at high risk of ill treatment and torture.
“Any government concerned about Uighurs or about refugee protection should press China to change its predatory policy and also work to stiffen the resolve of Malaysia and other governments, particularly in the region,” Frelick said. “The most effective way is by offering to resettle Uighurs seeking protection.”