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Court Rules Suspected Uighur Family Must Remain in Thai Custody

FILE - Ethnic Uighur Muslims line up beside a police van in Khlong Hoi Khong of southern Songkhla province, Thailand, March 15, 2014.

A Thai court Friday ruled that a family of 17 - suspected to be Uighur Muslims - must remain in custody until their nationalities are proven.

The court rejected the refugee family's contention that indefinite detention in the kingdom is illegal. It said Thai authorities must continue to hold them until identification documents are received from both China and Turkey.

The case has pitted Turkey against China, with Thailand seemingly reluctant to make a decision that would anger either of those countries.

The family's lawyer, Worasit Piriyawiboon, said all 17 have relatives and a house in Turkey and their nationalities now should be beyond dispute. They all obtained passports from Turkey's Interior Ministry that make them “officially Turkish citizens.”

But China claims the refugees are from its Xinjiang region and must be repatriated.

“They have to remain in Thailand subject to verification of nationality. So nothing has changed,” a spokesman for Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sek Wannamethee, told VOA shortly after the court decision.

Fifteen members of the Teklimankan family were apprehended by police one year ago after illegally entering Thailand from Cambodia. Since then two children have been born to the family.

The family's lawyer said the Uighurs have to pay for the cost of staying in the detention center, as well as their food, water and any medication.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division for Human Rights Watch, said conditions in the detention center are poor.

“We're talking about small children. We're talking about infants that are being condemned to stay in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in the immigration detention center indefinitely because Thailand doesn't want to believe the Turkish government when it says that these people are Turkish citizens,” said Robertson, speaking to VOA from Berlin.

Thailand's decision in this closely-watched case has implications for more detainees than just the one family.

“At this time there are over 300 people that are in this dilemma, essentially stalled in an effort to go to Turkey - people who have all claimed to be Turkish citizens, people that have been interviewed and assessed by the Turkish government," said Robertson. "And the Turkish government has said that 'yes, indeed, these are our citizens and we want them all to go.'”

Under pressure from Beijing, some Asian countries – including Cambodia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Thailand - have sent fleeing Uighurs to China.

There are an estimated 10 million Uighurs in Xinjiang. The Turkic-speaking ethnic minority has not accepted rule by China, which has been accused of repressing the Uighurs' culture and religion.