BANGKOK — A group of suspected Uighur Muslims has become the focus of a diplomatic tug-of-war in Thailand between China and Turkey, with both countries wanting to repatriate them and hundreds of other suspected Uighurs detained in Thailand as illegal immigrants.
The group of 17, all from the same family, were detained by Thai police in March 2014 after illegally entering overland from Cambodia, said their lawyer Worasit Piriyawiboon.
Two of the family’s 13 children were born in custody.
The family, who use the name Teklimakan, have spent most of the past year in the main police immigration detention center in Bangkok.
The group claimed to be Turkish and, while still in detention, were issued with passports by the Turkish Embassy and granted permission to travel to Turkey.
China insists the 17 detainees are Chinese Uighurs who should be returned to the northwest Chinese region of Xinjiang, according to court documents seen by Reuters.
Hundreds of people have been killed in unrest in Xinjiang in the past two years, prompting a crackdown by Chinese authorities and small numbers of Uighurs to try and flee the country.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, have traveled clandestinely through Southeast Asia en route to Turkey.
Thai National Security Council secretary-general Anusit Kunakorn told Reuters that China and Turkey have asked Thailand for help in repatriating those detained.
“Both China and Turkey have asked for our help in repatriating Uighurs,” Anusit told Reuters, adding that he would not be drawn on whether Thailand sides with one country over the other. “Their nationalities need to be verified. Thailand is just on the receiving end.”
On Tuesday, there was palpable tension in the Bangkok South Criminal Court where the case of the 17 suspected Uighurs was being heard. Representatives from the Turkish and Chinese embassies assembled to hear the case sat far apart.
“These are Turkish citizens. They have Turkish passports. These people want to go to Turkey and we’ve already said they can,” said Ahmet Idem Akay, a Turkish diplomat who attended the hearing.
Chinese officials who attended the hearing declined to comment.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she was not aware of the details of the case, but that China was willing to increase cooperation with Thailand, Turkey and other nations to fight illegal immigration.
The court will decide on Friday whether to order the group’s release. Under Thai law, court approval must be sought for detention periods over seven days.
Rights groups, including the New-York based Human Rights Watch, have urged the Thai government not to forcibly repatriate the Uighurs to China, adding that many face severe persecution, including the threat of arrest and torture.
The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking people officially regarded as “brothers” in Turkey, which already hosts large Uighur populations.