KUALA LUMPUR • Malaysia freed 11 ethnic Uighur Muslims who fled to the country after a Thai jailbreak last year because they did nothing wrong in Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said.
Reuters, citing the men's lawyer, reported last week that Malaysia had released the 11 from detention and sent them to Turkey, disregarding China's request to hand them to Beijing.
"They have done nothing wrong in this country, so they are released," Tun Dr Mahathir said yesterday in brief comments to reporters in Parliament, the first from the Malaysian government since they were freed.
Malaysia's move was likely to further strain ties with China; relations have been tested since Dr Mahathir won a stunning election victory in May and cancelled more than US$20 billion (S$28 billion) worth of projects awarded to Chinese companies.
China, which had asked for the extradition of the 11 Uighurs, said last Friday that it "resolutely" opposed Malaysia's decision to release them and send them to Turkey.
Prosecutors in Malaysia dropped charges against the Uighurs on humanitarian grounds, their lawyer said.
The men were detained and charged with illegally entering Malaysia after November's prison break, during which they punched holes in a prison wall and used blankets as ladders.
Reuters reported in February that Malaysia was under great pressure from China to send the men to Beijing. Some Western missions sought to dissuade Kuala Lumpur from sending them to China, which has been accused of persecuting Uighurs.
Beijing accuses separatist extremists among the Uighur minority of plotting attacks on China's Han majority in the restive western region of Xinjiang and elsewhere.