Malaysia Urged to Stop Deportation of Uighur Muslims to China Over 'Torture Fears'

Uighur Muslims in China
A Uighur family pray at the grave of a loved one on the morning of the Corban Festival on September 12, 2016 at a local shrine and cemetery in Turpan County, in the far western Xinjiang province, China.The Corban festival, known to Muslims worldwide as Eid al-Adha or 'feast of the sacrifice', is celebrated by ethnic Uighurs across Xinjiang, the far-western region of China bordering Central Asia that is home to roughly half of the country's 23 million Muslims. The festival, considered the most important of the year, involves religious rites and visits to the graves of relatives, as well as sharing meals with family. . Ethnic tensions have fueled violence that Chinese authorities point to as justification for the restrictions. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

No government should send back to China members of the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority who have fled the country, the China Director at Human Rights Watch has told Newsweek.

Sophie Richardson made the claims as concern is growing over the fate of 11 Uighur Muslims held in Malaysia after they escaped from a detention center in Thailand.

China has often been accused of cracking down on the minority, curtailing its freedoms of expression and religion and arbitrarily arresting Uighurs accused of being separatists. Beijing denies any wrongdoing.

The Uighurs held in Malaysia, originally from China, are part of some 200 Uighurs who were detained in Thailand in 2014. Claiming to be Turkish citizens, the detainees had attempted to reach Turkey.

However, more than half were sent back to China, triggering condemnation by the international community, with rights groups saying the deportees faced torture in China.

Similar remarks have surfaced now, as Beijing is seeking the deportation of the 11 Uighurs captured in Malaysia. The U.S. and rights groups have called on Kuala Lampur to offer temporary protection to the Uighurs, arguing that they face abuses and torture if they are forcibly sent back to China.

Malaysian officials said they were discussing the situation with their Thai counterparts and that they would take "action that will not upset any other country," Reuters reported.

HRW has documented "gross human rights abuses" including disappearances, torture and arbitrary detentions without due process of Uighurs in China.

"When you treat an entire population with that kind of hostility and suspicion, you are really demonizing a religion, a language, a culture and a way of life," Richardson said. "No government anywhere should send Uighurs back to China, ever."

Uighur Muslims in China
An ethnic Uighur man holds his grandson as he sits outside his house in an area waiting development by authorities on June 28, 2017 in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China. Kashgar has long been considered the cultural heart of Xinjiang for the province's nearly 10 million Muslim Uighurs. At an historic crossroads linking China to Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, the city has changed under Chinese rule with government development, unofficial Han Chinese settlement to the western province, and restrictions imposed by the Communist Party. Beijing says it regards Kashgar's development as an improvement to the local economy, but many Uighurs consider it a threat that is eroding their language, traditions, and cultural identity. The friction has fuelled a separatist movement that has sometimes turned violent, triggering a crackdown on what China's government considers 'terrorist acts' by religious extremists. Tension has increased with stepped up security in the city and the enforcement of measures including restrictions at mosques. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Who are the Uighur Muslims and why do they face oppression?

The Uighur Muslims are a Turkic ethnic group living in Eastern and Central Asia.

In China, they mainly live in the autonomous Xinjiang province, in the country's northwest, and demand autonomy from Chinese rule and an end to state suppression of their religion.

Modern-day Xinjiang is inhabited by more than 10 million Uighur Muslims, or 45.84 percent of the province's total 21.82 million people as per a 2010 census. Han Chinese make up 40.48 percent of the population in the province.

Xinjiang was originally a protectorate under Chinese rule and became a province during the Qing dynasty in the 18th century.

Xinjiang lived a short period of independence and was renamed East Turkestan in 1949. But the same year, it officially became part of the People Republic's of China.

Uighur separatists claim Xinjiang was forcibly annexed to China. A movement seeking independence began in 1960 and separatist groups and the government have been engaged in a conflict since.

Violence has claimed hundreds of lives. In 2014, four men drove SUVs through a crowded market in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi and tossed explosives out of the vehicles, killing themselves and another 39 people, in one of the most violent attacks blamed on separatists.

A few days later, at least three people were killed in explosion at a train station in the capital. In response, China sentenced to death eight people accused of being involved in the attacks.

In July 2009, violent conflicts between the Han Chinese and the Uighur erupted, killing nearly 200 people in Urumqi.

Beijing accuses Uighur separatists of waging a violent campaign for an independent state, but the government has been accused of exaggerating the Uighurs' extremism to justify its religious crackdown on the Muslim minority.

"The Chinese government has long regarded the Uighur community as suspicious, largely because of their distinct ethnicity, religion, culture and language and has treated them as if they were separatists and more recently terrorists," Richardson said.

"There are very strict policies in place and a permanent campaign against separatism and terrorism that has gone way beyond the legitimate state's obligations to provide public security."

Last month, U.S.-funded news organization Radio Free Asia (RFA) claimed as many as 120,000 Uighurs accused of holding "extremist or politically incorrect" views had been sent to "re-education" camps in Kahgar, a prefecture in Xinjiang.

HRW has long called on the Chinese government to release people held in so-called "political education" centers in Xinjiang.

"Since about April 2017, the authorities have forcibly detained thousands of Uighurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities at these centers, where they are subjected to propaganda promoting Chinese identity," said the organization in a September 2017 report.

Last year, Amnesty International urged China to scrap laws that tightened state control over religious activities. The group claimed security forces had detained at least 200 Uighur Muslims for joining religious tours to the Middle East.

In 2014, reports claimed the government had banned Hinjiang officials from fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast from dawn to sunset and engage in activities aimed at purifying their bodies and souls. Similar reports emerged in the following years.

"Unless Chinese authorities are willing to listen to legitimate grievances and change policies and adopt ones that are supportive of Uighur ways of life, it is hard to see the situation improving," concluded Richardson,