Uighurs in China-Turkey row to remain in Thai custody

Suspected Uighurs are transported to a detention facility in the town of Songkhla in southern Thailand Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Many Uighurs are believed to have arrived in Thailand to escape persecution in Xinjiang

A court in Thailand has ruled that a group of Muslim Uighurs at the centre of a diplomatic dispute between Turkey and China can remain in Thai detention.

Both China and Turkey claim the group, held since March 2014 after entering Thailand illegally, as their citizens.

The court ruled that the group must remain in detention until their nationalities are proven.

The court case could have implications for whether hundreds of other Uighurs held in Thailand could be repatriated.

The group of 17 people - mostly reported to be from the same family - say they are Turkish citizens, and the Turkish government recently issued them with passports.

However, China says they are Uighurs from its north-western region of Xinjiang.

It has criticised Turkey's offer to repatriate them and has insisted that their real home is in China.

China's authorities blame Uighur separatists for instigating violence and the frequent unrest in Xinjiang. They have launched a widespread crackdown in Xinjiang, arresting hundreds and executing dozens in recent years.

In response, some Uighurs are reported to have fled China and secretly travelled through South East Asia on their way to Turkey.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Activists say that Uighurs have experienced economic, cultural and religious repression by the Chinese authorities

The group have challenged the right of the Thai authorities to keep them in custody, and say the conditions they are being kept in are unacceptable.

However, the court ruled on Friday that Thai immigration had a legal right to detain the group. It made no judgement on the question of their nationalities.

The lawyer for the group said that he would appeal against the ruling.

The BBC's Jonathan Head in Bangkok says that it is likely that Chinese diplomatic pressure played a hand in the court's decision to keep the group in custody.

Officials in Beijing have been pushing Thailand to repatriate more than 300 Uighurs who were found last year hidden in a rubber plantation in the south of the country.

Facing isolation from its traditional Western allies after last year's military coup, the Thai government has been working to improve relations with China - which means that even though the Turkish government has offered them a home, the Uighurs are unlikely to be released while there are still objections from Beijing, our correspondent says.

Uighurs and Xinjiang

Image copyright AP
  • Uighurs are ethnically Turkic Muslims
  • They make up about 45% of the region's population; 40% are Han Chinese
  • China re-established control in 1949 after crushing short-lived state of East Turkestan
  • Since then, there has been large-scale immigration of Han Chinese
  • Uighurs fear erosion of traditional culture

Who are the Uighurs?

Activists say that Uighurs have experienced economic, cultural and religious repression by the authorities over the decades, in addition to difficulties obtaining passports.

Uighur activists say they are seeking asylum and fleeing persecution, but Chinese authorities say that many Uighurs are leaving the country to link up with Islamist militants.

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