The United States on Friday expressed concerns over Malaysia's possible deportation of 11 Uighur Muslims to China, following a Reuters report that Beijing wanted the Southeast Asian country to hand over the Uighur who escaped from Thailand.
Citing sources, Reuters reported on Thursday that the 11 ethnic Uighur from China, who were among 20 that escaped from a Thai jail last year, have been detained in Malaysia, and that Beijing was in talks with Malaysia over their deportation.
Malaysia was under "great pressure" from China to hand them over to Beijing, and not to Thailand, and some Western foreign missions were trying to dissuade them from sending the Uighur to China, the sources said.
"We are concerned by media reports regarding Malaysia's possible deportation of Uighur individuals to China," a U.S. State Department spokesperson told Reuters in an email.
"We urge Chinese authorities to uphold international human rights norms with regard to any individuals who have been returned to China, and to ensure transparency, due process, and the safety and proper treatment of these individuals."
Human Rights Watch called on Malaysia to ensure the detained Uighur are not forcibly deported to China as they face "credible threats of imprisonment and torture".
"Malaysian authorities should allow these individuals access to a fair process to determine their refugee claims, not ship them to China based on Beijing's demands," Brad Adams, Asia director of the rights group, said in a statement on Friday.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on Thursday said he did not know of the case of the detained Uighur in Malaysia.
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 other parts of China.
China has been accused of rights abuses in Xinjiang, torture of Uighur detainees and tight control on their religion and culture. It denies wrongdoing. Over the years, hundreds, possibly thousands, of Uighur have escaped unrest in Xinjiang by travelling clandestinely via Southeast Asia to Turkey.
The 20 Uighur broke out of a cell near the Thai-Malaysian border in November by digging holes in the wall and using blankets as ladders. Five of them were recaptured in Thailand later that month. The escapees were part of a larger group of more than 200 Uighur detained in Thailand in 2014.
Members of the group identified themselves as Turkish citizens and asked to be sent to Turkey but more than 100 were forcibly returned to China in July 2015, a move that sparked international condemnation, including from rights groups who feared they could face torture in China.