BANGKOK (AP) — The 109 ethnic Uighur refugees whose deportation to China by Thailand this month sparked an international outcry are being been treated well at a rehabilitation center where they've been held since their return, Thailand's national security chief said Monday. He said some were being investigated for their alleged involvement in terrorism.
Thai authorities sent back the Uighurs, who had been in Thailand for over a year and claimed to be Turkish, after determining they were Chinese. The repatriations were criticized by the U.N. refugee agency, the United States and others. In Turkey's capital, Istanbul, protesters ransacked the Thai Consulate to denounce the decision.
National Security Council Secretary General Anusit Kunakorn was among five Thai officials who traveled to China last Wednesday to follow up on the Uighurs. They also met with top Chinese officials to discuss the issue.
Anusit told reporters Monday that the Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) were living under good conditions at a rehabilitation center in Xinjiang province in western China.
The security chief said the Thai officials had been granted "unprecedented" access to the returned refugees by the Chinese authorities, noting that China's government does not usually permit foreign governments or organizations to visit the center.
The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in the Xinjiang region. The group has complained of harsh cultural and religious suppression as well as economic marginalization under Chinese rule.
China's position is that the Uighurs who were sent back by Thailand had left the country illegally. Beijing has accused Uighur separatists of terrorism in Xinjiang, where ethnic violence has left hundreds of people dead over the past two years.
Anusit displayed for reporters a series of photos taken at the rehabilitation center that showed a cafeteria and cabinets full of plates and utensils. He said photography was not allowed at the living quarters, where the Thai officials met the 109 Uighurs, including 20 women who were being held separately.
"The center was clean. The plates were all sanitized," said Anusit, who arrived back in Thailand on Sunday night. "It's like a recovery center, not a corrections facility. It was even better than when they were with us, when the conditions were quite poor."
Anusit said 13 of the Uighurs, classified in the center by their orange vests, were being investigated by Chinese authorities for their alleged involvement in terrorism.
The U.N. refugee agency called the deportations "a flagrant violation of international law." The United States also condemned Thailand's action, and voiced deep concern about the protection of asylum-seekers in the Southeast Asian country. Amnesty International said the Uighurs could face detention or torture in China.
Anusit said the claims that they might be tortured were "imaginary" and said a top Chinese leader had told him that China's government would provide security to the refugees.
In late June, Thailand sent back 172 Uighurs who were identified as Turkish back to Turkey. Anusit said the Thai government would hold off on deporting the remaining 60 Uighur refugees being held at detention centers across Thailand.