BANGKOK (Reuters) - A family of 17 suspected Uighur Muslims at the center of a diplomatic tug-of-war between Turkey and China will remain in custody after a Thai court on Friday rejected their argument that their prolonged detention was illegal.
Turkey and China both claim the detainees as nationals in a dispute with potential implications for hundreds of other suspected Uighur detainees and to where they should be repatriated. The group has been in detention for a year.
The court ruled that Thai immigration had the right to detain the group but made no ruling on their nationality. Under Thai law, court approval must be sought for detention periods of more than seven days.
The group plans to appeal against the decision, their lawyer Worasit Piriyawiboon said.
“I don’t agree with the court decision and I‘m ready to fight,” Worasit told reporters on Friday.
Thai police detained the group, all from the same family, in March 2014 after they illegally entered Thailand overland from Cambodia. Two of the 13 children in the group were born in custody.
The family claimed to be Turkish and, while still in detention, were issued with passports by the Turkish Embassy and granted permission to travel to Turkey.
China insists the 17 detainees are Chinese Uighurs who should be returned to the northwest Chinese region of Xinjiang, according to court documents seen by Reuters.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, asked about those detained, said China was willing to increase cooperation with countries such as Thailand to fight illegal immigration and cross-border crime. She did not comment on the case itself.
Turkey and China have both asked Thailand for help in repatriating the group, Thai National Security Council secretary-general Anusit Kunakorn said after a first hearing of the case on Tuesday.
Thai court documents referring to them do not detail their nationality.
Turkish diplomats at the hearing on Friday declined to comment on the verdict. None of the family, who use the name Teklimakan, appeared in court. They have spent most of the past year in the main police immigration detention center in Bangkok.
Hundreds of people have been killed in unrest in Xinjiang in the past two years, prompting a crackdown by Chinese authorities, and small numbers of Uighurs have tried to flee.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, have traveled clandestinely through Southeast Asia to Turkey.
The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking people officially regarded as “brothers” in Turkey, which already hosts large Uighur populations.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Simon Webb and Paul Tait