Malaysia has freed 11 ethnic Uighur Muslims who escaped from immigration detention in Thailand, their lawyer said Friday, ignoring a request from Beijing to deport the group to China.
In the dramatic breakout last November, 25 members of the persecuted minority used blankets to climb out of their cells in a daring pre-dawn escape from immigration detention in southern Thailand.
Eleven of them, all men, escaped overland to neighbouring Malaysia, where they were caught and charged with illegal entry.
Southern Thailand and Malaysia share a common border, which is easily penetrable.
The group were freed and flew to Turkey on Tuesday, their lawyer Fahmi Abdul Moin told AFP.
"Prosecutors decided to drop all charges on humanitarian grounds," he said.
The decision was made after lawyers wrote to the Malaysian attorney general urging that the charges be withdrawn, Fahmi added.
In a faxed comment to AFP, China's foreign ministry said it was looking into the reports, but said it was opposed to "illegal immigration."
"These people are Chinese, and we are firmly against sending them to third countries," it said, adding: "We hope Malaysia attaches great importance to China's position and concerns."
Human Rights Watch (HRW) welcomed the group's release.
"These 11 men faced detention, torture or worse if they were returned to China," HRW deputy director for Asia Phil Robertson said.
China had asked Malaysia's previous government to repatriate the group in February, but new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has taken a more independent stand with Beijing.
Since coming to power in May, Mahathir has cancelled more than $20 billion worth of mega-infrastructure projects backed by Chinese firms, including rail and gas pipelines.
Mahathir's predecessor Najib Razak was seen as too friendly with Beijing.
Najib's government last year deported to China 29 Uighurs it said were involved with Islamic militants.
Uighurs are a mostly Muslim Turkic ethnic group from China's far west Xinjiang region, where authorities have enforced draconian security measures in the name of combatting extremism and separatism.
A UN panel in August cited estimates that up to one million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are held in interment camps.
Beijing has denied the existence of the camps, while admitting that some people accused of minor crimes have been put in correctional programmes where they receive job training.
But on Tuesday, Xinjiang updated key regulations to codify such centres, saying that people accused of minor crimes related to terrorism would be allowed to voluntarily enter the facilities instead of being jailed.
A scathing US congressional report released this week accused China of the unprecedented repression of its ethnic minorities, including Uighurs, with authoritarian tactics potentially constituting "crimes against humanity".