(New York) – The Chinese government should immediately allow access to Nur Muhammed, an ethnic Uighur who was handed over to Chinese officials in Bangkok on August 6, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. China’s record of torture, disappearance, and arbitrary detention of Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority, puts Muhammed at grave risk of torture, Human Rights Watch said.
The Thai government should also publicly explain why it violated its own procedures regarding illegal entrants into Thailand, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Chinese government has again reached beyond its borders to force another Uighur into a black hole,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Even worse, it appears that Thailand – which so often has protected people fleeing persecution – has instead abandoned that proud tradition to do Beijing’s bidding.”
Muhammed was arrested on August 6, by immigration authorities at Soi Lat Phrao 112 and taken to the Bangkok Immigration Detention Center (IDC), where he was charged under the Immigration Act with illegal entry. There was no arrest warrant or extradition request, and Muhammed was not brought to a court, as stipulated by Thai law, to hear charges of illegal entry or overstaying a visa. Instead, he was handed over directly into the custody of Chinese government officials who were already at the detention center awaiting his arrival. It is unclear whether he has already been sent back to China.
Thai officials have not explained why normal procedures were not followed. The Thai government should have alerted the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) about Muhammed's case so that an assessment could be undertaken to determine whether he could make a claim for asylum, especially since the Uighurs are a group known to be vulnerable to abuse in China. As a party to the Convention Against Torture, Thailand is prohibited from forcibly returning (refoulement) an individual to a place “where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”
Muhammed had reportedly been under surveillance after fleeing to Thailand two years ago after the July 2009 unrest in Xinjiang. Police Major-General Phansak Kasemasanta, deputy chief of the Immigration Bureau, said at a news conference that the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok had informed Thai authorities that Muhammed was part of a Uighur “terrorist” network responsible for bomb attacks and riots in Xinjiang. According to Thai government sources, Nur Muhammed allegedly confessed to playing a role in the July 2009 unrest in Xinjiang, yet no credible evidence of criminal behavior has been made public. The Chinese government frequently and unilaterally characterizes peaceful calls for self-determination and other markers of Uighur identity as “terrorism, treason, and separatism.”
The July 2009 protests in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, were one of the worst episodes of ethnic violence in China in decades. The unrest appears to have been sparked by an attack on Uighurs in the southeast part of the country that served as a rallying cry for Uighurs angry over longstanding discriminatory policies in Xinjiang.
Instead of opening an impartial investigation into the incidents in accordance with international and domestic standards, Chinese law enforcement agencies carried out a massive campaign of arrests in the Uighur areas of Urumqi. Countless numbers of Uighurs fled China in the wake of the unrest, and trials related to the July 2009 violence fell short of the minimum standards for the administration of justice. At least one group of Uighurs arrived in Cambodia in late October 2009, and, despite being issued “Persons of Concern” letters by UNHCR, was forcibly returned to China on December 19, 2009. Their whereabouts and well-being remain unknown.
In recent years Thai authorities have repeatedly violated the international principle against refoulement. Despite an international outcry, including strong protests by the UNHCR and the UN secretary-general, the Thai government forcibly repatriated more than 4,500 Hmong, including 158 UNHCR-designated "persons of concern," to Laos in December 2009. In October 2009, Thai authorities sent back to Burma thousands of Burmese fleeing armed conflicts in border areas before UNHCR could assess whether they were returning voluntarily. They also arrested 128 Tamils for illegal entry, including many registered with UNHCR, and threatened to send them back to Sri Lanka.
The Thai government has yet to fulfill a promise to conduct an independent investigation into allegations in 2008 and 2009 that the Thai navy pushed boats laden with Rohingyas from Burma and Bangladesh back to international waters, which allegedly resulted in hundreds of deaths.
“The new Thai government should demonstrate that it will uphold its obligations to the highest degree, not casually disregard them,” Richardson said. “And the Chinese government should allow access to all Uighurs returned against their will to China.”