Malaysia freed 11 ethnic Uighur Muslims who fled to the Southeast Asian nation after a Thai jailbreak because they did nothing wrong, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said on Monday.
China – which had asked for their extradition – said last week it “resolutely” opposed Malaysia’s decision to release the 11 Uighurs and send them to Turkey.
“They have done nothing wrong in this country, so they are released,” Mahathir said in brief comments to reporters in parliament, the first from the Malaysian government since their release.
Malaysia’s move was likely to strain ties with China, which have already been tested since Mahathir won a stunning election victory in May and cancelled more than $20bn worth of projects awarded to Chinese companies.
Prosecutors in Muslim-majority Malaysia dropped charges against the Uighurs on humanitarian grounds, their lawyer said.
The men were detained and charged with illegally entering Malaysia after the prison break in November 2017, during which they punched holes in a prison wall and used blankets as ladders.
Some Western missions sought to dissuade Malaysia from sending the Uighurs to China, which has been accused of persecuting the Muslim minority.
Beijing accuses “separatist extremists” among the Uighur minority of plotting attacks on China’s Han majority in the restive far-western region of Xinjiang and elsewhere.
China has been accused of rights abuses in Xinjiang, torture of Uighur detainees, and tight controls on their religion and culture. Beijing denies wrongdoing.
The United Nations has said about one million Muslims in Xinjiang have been rounded up and held in so-called “re-education” centres – camps the Uighurs claim are intended to replace the next generation’s Uighur identity with a Chinese one.
Over the years, hundreds, possibly thousands, of Uighurs have escaped the unrest by travelling clandestinely via Southeast Asia to Turkey.