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(New York) – Malaysia’s secret forced return to China of six Uighurs with pending asylum claims on December 31, 2012, was a grave violation of international law, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to the Malaysian government today. 

An upcoming February 5 visit to Malaysia by Jia Qinglin, a senior member of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee, will provide Malaysian authorities with an opportunity to publicly state that they will uphold legal protections for refugees.

“While Malaysians were celebrating the New Year, their government was forcibly returning Uighur asylum seekers to a dangerously uncertain fate in China.” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The government has an obligation to explain how this happened, China’s role, and the steps being taken to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”   

Credible sources told Human Rights Watch that the six Uighur men returned to China on December 31 had been detained earlier in 2012 allegedly for attempting to leave Malaysia on false passports. While in detention, they were registered with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and were permitted to proceed with refugee status determination (RSD) interviews. Although all six had asylum claims being reviewed, Malaysian police clandestinely transferred the men in late December into the custody of Chinese authorities, who escorted them from Malaysia to China on a chartered flight.

Under international law, it is unlawful for any country to return individuals to a place where they are likely to face persecution or torture. The Chinese government frequently accuses ethnic Uighurs, particularly those seeking asylum, of being terrorists or separatists without providing evidence to substantiate such claims. A Uighur forcibly returned to China by Malaysia in 2011, for instance, was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of “separatism.”

“This isn’t the first time the Malaysian government has violated international law on Beijing’s behalf, but it has the chance to make it the last,” Robertson said. “Announcing Malaysia’s commitment to protecting refugees and ratifying the refugee conventions would be a good place to start.”

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