Aziz Abdullah: The death of a Uyghur asylum seeker puts Thailand under pressure

Before they fled to Thailand, Aziz Abdullah and his family can be seen (maroon t-shirt)

Rights organizations have urged authorities to find a humane solution to the plight of about 50 Uyghur men who have been held in detention for nine years following the death of a 49-year-old Uyghur asylum seeker in Thailand.

Aziz Abdullah passed away in Bangkok's Immigration Detention Center after collapsing there.

He was one of over 350 Uyghur asylum seekers who left western China's Xinjiang region in 2013 and were detained in Thailand.

Human rights organizations estimate that more than a million people have recently been detained in a vast network of facilities the government refers to as "re-education camps" in Xinjiang; China denies committing crimes against humanity against Uyghur Muslims and other minorities there.

Aziz Abdullah, a prominent figure in the Islamic community in a remote area of south-western Xinjiang, traveled to Thailand in the latter part of 2013 with his wife, who was expecting, his brother, and seven kids.

He had been seriously ill for more than three weeks, according to activists in contact with detainees at the Immigration Detention Center, but the Thai authorities refused to send him to the hospital until he passed out.

According to Polat Sayim, the World Uyghur Congress's director based in Australia, "He was coughing and vomiting blood - he could not eat.".

"After examining him, an IDC doctor declared that he wasn't actually ill and that his condition was normal. " .

After finally collapsing, he was taken to the hospital, but was quickly declared dead. Lung infection is listed as the cause of death on the hospital's death certificate.

Uyghurs on flight to China after being repatriated by Thailand
109 Uyghurs were returned to China by Thailand in 2015 despite requests from the UN not to do so.

Activists claim that when his group was stopped in southern Thailand, they were attempting to travel to Malaysia and ultimately Turkey.

Most Uyghurs at the time pretended to be Turkish in order to avoid being sent back to China, and Turkey was granting some of them citizenship. Early in July 2015, the Thai government authorized the flight to Turkey of 173 of them, including the wife and kids of Aziz Abdullah.

China, however, objected vehemently to this and charged Turkey with "conniving in illegal immigration activities" and interfering in a bilateral matter.

The Thai government had also permitted Chinese embassy representatives to visit and evaluate the asylum seekers. However, on July 8, 2015, against the UNHCR's and other governments' requests, Thailand forcibly repatriated at least 109 Uyghur men, placing them on a plane and sending them back to China while handcuffed and hooded.

They included the brother of Aziz Abdullah.

Chinese state media described them as members of gangs that smuggle people, with some of them being charged with terrorist activity. After the men arrived in China, nothing is known about what happened to them.

The Thai government defended its choice by claiming that although the Chinese had requested that all Uyghurs be sent home, only a small number had actually been sent.

A potent bomb detonated six weeks later at a shrine in the heart of Bangkok that was well-liked by Chinese tourists, killing 20 people and injuring many more. The Thai government insisted that it was the result of competition between people-smuggling organizations, but later evidence pointed to Uyghur militant groups as the most likely culprits.

Though one of the two Uyghur men, who insists he is innocent, was detained and charged with the bombing, it's possible that he was simply another asylum seeker who was apprehended by Thai police during a raid on a home they believed to have been used by the bomb-makers.

More than eight years after their arrest, their trial has been repeatedly delayed; the Thai government appears unmotivated to complete it, and the two men are still being held without charge.

Foreign suspects in the August 17 Erawan shrine bombing identified by the ruling junta as Adem Karadag (C,R) and Yusufu Mieraili (C, back L) arrive at a military court in Bangkok on February 16, 2016.
Adem Karadag , front, and Yusufu Mieraili arrive at a military court in Bangkok in 2016.

The remaining 50 or so Uyghur detainees were previously housed in detention facilities spread throughout Thailand, but after three of them managed to flee, they were all transferred to Bangkok's notoriously jam-packed Immigration Detention Center.

The Uyghurs are kept apart from one another and have little contact with the outside world, according to activists working to help them.

"It is even worse than regular Thai prisons," says Chalida Tacharoensuk, from the People's Empowerment Foundation, which has been pushing for better treatment of the Uyghurs.

It's incredibly crowded. Food is scarce and the food that is provided is unhealthy. For Muslim prisoners, there is no halal food available.  The drinks are not clean either - they have to drink tap water. Very little healthcare is available.  If they get sick, they only get pain-killers or similar medications. ".

"This death is an entirely predictable outcome of a Thai policy decision to lock away these Uyghurs and, essentially, throw away the key," said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch.

"It is obvious that no consideration was given to the potential health effects of indefinite detention in claustrophobic, filthy immigration cells with completely inadequate healthcare and nutrition. ".

A top view of the scene of the bomb balst at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, Thailand on August 18, 2015.
The attack on the Erawan shrine killed 20 people.

The BBC tried calling a spokesman for the Bangkok IDC but was unable to get a response. The Thai police spokesperson declined to comment.

The UNHCR says it has been allowed no access to the detainees.  The Thai National Human Rights Commission has also been seeking permission to visit the Uyghurs in the IDC for several months.

It was finally given a date this month, and will go in later this week.

The Thai government has promised to work with the UN to improve the screening and treatment of the tens of thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers who are inside the country, but this has yet to bring any significant improvements to conditions inside the Bangkok IDC.

Campaigners believe the Uyghurs would be very likely to get third country resettlement if Thailand was willing to release them.  But, according to a well-placed Thai source, the government's concern over upsetting China is too great.

Aziz Abdullah's body was eventually released to members of the Thai Muslim community, and he was buried in a cemetery at a mosque close to the Chao Phraya River in central Bangkok.

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