Malaysia has freed 11 ethnic Uighur Muslims who escaped from immigration detention in Thailand, their lawyer said Friday, ignoring a request from Beijing to deport the group to China.

In the dramatic breakout last November, 25 members of the persecuted minority used blankets to climb out of their cells in a daring pre-dawn escape from immigration detention in southern Thailand.

Urumqi Xinjiang police May 2014
Police in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Photo: Wikicommons.

Eleven of them, all men, escaped overland to neighbouring Malaysia, where they were caught and charged with illegal entry.

Southern Thailand and Malaysia share a common border, which is easily penetrable.

The group were freed and flew to Turkey on Tuesday, their lawyer Fahmi Abdul Moin told AFP.

“Prosecutors decided to drop all charges on humanitarian grounds,” he said.

The decision was made after lawyers wrote to the Malaysian attorney general urging that the charges be withdrawn, Fahmi added.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) welcomed the group’s release.

“These 11 men faced detention, torture or worse if they were returned to China,” HRW deputy director for Asia Phil Robertson said.

China had asked Malaysia’s previous government to repatriate the group in February, but new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has taken a more independent stand with Beijing.

Since coming to power in May, Mahathir has cancelled more than US$20 billion worth of mega-infrastructure projects backed by Chinese firms, including rail and gas pipelines.

Mahathir’s predecessor Najib Razak was seen as too friendly with Beijing.

Mahathir Mohamad Mike Pompeo
Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. Photo: US State Department.

Najib’s government last year deported to China 29 Uighurs it said were involved with Islamic militants.

Uighurs are persecuted in western China, where they are subject to strict regulations suppressing public displays of religion.

Over a million Uighur and other Muslim minority people have been detained in re-education camps for offences as minor as making contact with family members outside the country or sharing Islamic holiday greetings on social media, the UN says.

Beijing has denied reports of the camps but evidence is mounting in the form of government documents and testimonies from former detainees.

A scathing US congressional report released this month accused China of the unprecedented repression of its ethnic minorities, including Uighurs, with authoritarian tactics potentially constituting “crimes against humanity”.

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