BEIJING — More than 100 Chinese Muslims faced what a rights group called “grim” prospects Friday, a day after their deportation from Thailand, as officials in Beijing accused many of them of terrorist activities and warned of possible harsh punishments.
Thailand’s military government has drawn vehement international criticism for forcing the 109 refugees, known as Uighurs, back to China, arguing that they had only Chinese documentation. Activists and others accuse Beijing of waging a campaign of repression against the Turkic-speaking minority in western China, in contravention of their religious, cultural and political rights.
The United States condemned Thailand’s move as incompatible with an international convention against torture, and the U.N. refugee agency called it a “flagrant violation of international law.”
In Turkey, where Uighur issues are followed increasingly closely, protests were staged outside Thai and Chinese diplomatic missions.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Uighurs have fled China in recent years. Officials claim that some have been inspired by extremist Islamist ideologies and the idea of a global jihad, and accuse them of carrying out violent attacks against authorities.
The Thai government said it had received assurances from Beijing about the safety of the Uighurs it sent back. It also noted that it had rejected a request for the repatriation of all the Uighurs held in Thai detention camps.
“It is not like all of a sudden China asks for Uighurs and we just give them back,” said a deputy government spokesman, Col. Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak, Reuters reported. “China asked for all Uighur Muslims in Thailand to be sent back, but we said we could not do it.”
But Thai officials also appeared eager to wash their hands of the entire affair.
“If we send them back and there is a problem, it is not our fault,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said Thursday, according to news agencies. Prayuth, a general, led a coup against Thailand’s elected government in May 2014.
China’s Foreign Ministry said those Uighurs suspected of “committing serious crimes” would be brought to justice, while others would be dealt with in “proper ways,” according to spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
But it appeared that China had already made up its mind about the group, invoking the specter of terrorism, which effectively ensures that some of their number, at least, will face severe punishment.
Some of the Uighurs had fled because they had committed crimes in China, while “some were involved in terrorism activities,” the Ministry of Public Security told the state-run Global Times newspaper Friday.
Seemingly unwilling to accept that the Uighurs might have left China voluntarily, the ministry said some appeared to have been coerced and many had been “bewitched” by propaganda from Uighur groups abroad.
Many, it said, planned to go through Thailand to Turkey, “and then to Syria and Iraq to join terrorist organizations and so-called ‘jihad.’ ”
The Global Times quoted unidentified Public Security Ministry officials as saying that a certain country has been issuing passports and proof of citizenship to Uighurs, thus encouraging them to illegally leave China. Although the country was not named, it was clear that the reference was to Turkey.
The Uighurs sent back this week, who the United Nations said included about 20 women, are now likely to disappear into China’s jails. Judging by the fate of 20 Uighurs deported from Cambodia in 2009, their whereabouts will be extremely hard to establish.
Sophie Richardson, China director at the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, said Friday that Thailand had “cravenly caved” to pressure from China, and she described the outlook for the group as “grim.”
“In effect, China has simply hunted these people down, and Thailand has blithely robbed them of any protection they should have been afforded under international law,” she said.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. government condemned the forced deportation of the group to China, “where they could face harsh treatment and lack of due process.”
China’s treatment of its Muslim Uighur minority has strained ties with Turkey ahead of a visit to Beijing this month by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. There is a significant Uighur diaspora in Turkey, and many people see the Turkic-speaking Uighurs as sharing a common heritage with Turks.
Police used tear gas Thursday to disperse protesters at the Chinese Embassy in Ankara, while protesters smashed windows and broke into the Thai Consulate in Istanbul late Wednesday.
The Thai government said that it had earlier sent a group of 170 Uighur refugees to Turkey after establishing that they were of Turkish ancestry and that it was still trying to verify the citizenship status of an additional 50.
But the forced repatriation of the group to China appeared to catch many people off guard. The U.N. refugee agency said it was “shocked” after having been assured by Thailand that the group would be protected, the Associated Press reported.
Two witnesses who saw the Uighurs being led into trucks to be driven to Bangkok’s military airport told the AP that the men were handcuffed and that some of the women were crying and shouting: “Help us! Don’t allow them to send us back to China.”
Gu Jinglu contributed to this report.