KUALA LUMPUR • Malaysia has freed from detention 11 ethnic Uighur Muslims who fled to the country after breaking out of a Thai jail last year and sent them to Turkey, defying China's request to hand them over to Beijing.
The move is likely to further test bilateral ties with China, especially after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad - since coming to power after a stunning election victory in May - cancelled more than US$20 billion (S$27.7 billion) worth of projects awarded to Chinese companies.
Prosecutors in Muslim-majority Malaysia dropped charges against the Uighurs on humanitarian grounds, and they arrived in Turkey after flying out of Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday, their lawyer Fahmi Moin said.
"The charges were withdrawn because the Attorney-General's Chambers agreed to the (appeal) from our side," he added.
Malaysia's immigration department, the Home Ministry and the Attorney-General's Office did not immediately respond to requests for comment, nor did China's Foreign Ministry.
The men were detained and charged with illegally entering Malaysia after a daring prison break last November.
The Uighurs broke out of the prison in Thailand by punching holes in a prison wall and using blankets as ladders. They were part of a group of more than 200 Uighurs detained in Thailand in 2014.
In February, reports said Malaysia was under pressure from China to deport the men.
Some Western missions sought to dissuade KL from sending them to China, which has been accused of persecuting the Uighur minority.
Beijing, on the other hand, has accused Uighur separatist elements of plotting attacks on China's Han majority in the restive western region of Xinjiang and elsewhere.
China has also been accused of rights abuses in Xinjiang, torture of Uighur detainees, and tight controls on their religion and culture. It denies wrongdoing.
Over the years, hundreds or even thousands of Uighurs have escaped the unrest by travelling secretly via South-east Asia to Turkey.