Malaysia freed 11 ethnic Uighur Muslims who fled to the Southeast Asian nation after a Thai jailbreak last year because they did nothing wrong there, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said on Monday.
Reuters, citing the men’s lawyer, reported last week that Malaysia had released the 11 from detention and sent them to Turkey, disregarding China’s request to hand them to Beijing.
“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 canceled more than $20 billion worth of projects awarded to Chinese companies.
China, which had asked for their extradition, said on Friday that it “resolutely” opposed Malaysia’s decision to release the 11 Uighurs and send them to Turkey.
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 November’s daring prison break, during which they punched holes in a prison wall and used blankets as ladders.
Reuters reported in February that Malaysia was under great pressure from China to send the men there. Some Western missions sought to dissuade Kuala Lumpur from sending them to China, which has been accused of persecuting Uighurs.
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. It denies wrongdoing.
Over the years, hundreds, possibly thousands, of Uighurs have escaped the unrest by traveling clandestinely via Southeast Asia to Turkey.