Beijing has said that more than 100 members of the minority Muslim Uighur community, who were returned by Thailand after fleeing China, were on their way to join armed groups in the Middle East.
China’s official Xinjua news agency cited the country’s ministry of public security in a report on Sunday that said the 109 Uighurs “intended to join jihad” in Turkey, Syria or Iraq.
The report also said a Chinese police investigation had uncovered several gangs recruiting people to fight, and that Turkish diplomats in some Southeast Asian countries had facilitated the illegal movement of people.
The Uighurs were detained in Thailand more than a year ago, but said they were Turkish. A group of 173 were sent to Turkey after Thai authorities said they determined they were in fact Turkish, but 109 were found to be from China, according to Thai deputy government spokesman Verachon Sukhonthapatipak.
Thailand has been harshly criticised by the United Nations, the European Union and human rights groups for repatriating Uighurs back to China, where activists say they face widespread religious and cultural persecution, instead of sending them to Turkey, which has accepted other Uighurs.
Xinhua said that many of the 109 Uighurs had been radicalised by materials sent by the exiled World Uyghur Congress, a Germany-based rights group for the Turkic-speaking ethnic minority, and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, designated by China as a terrorist organisation.
Dilxat Raxit, World Uyghur Congress spokesman, said that China was “shirking responsibility for Uighurs fleeing because of its policy of suppression. The so-called radicals are those who hope to flee China and live a stable and dignified life in a safe and free country.”
Omer Kanat, a vice president of the World Uyghur Congress, told Al Jazeera the accusations against the 109 Uighurs, a number that includes 20 women, were “total lies”.
“The serious accusations imply China has already decided what to do with them. It is very clear they will be tortured and maybe some will be executed,” Kanat said.
Sixty-seven Uighurs remain in Thailand, which has not decided yet what to do with them.
The exodus of Uighurs from China to neighbouring countries peaked in 2013 and 2014. There have been significantly less in 2015 due to tightened border controls.