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US State Department decries China’s ‘remarkably awful’ treatment of Uyghurs

Local musicians at mashrap, Yarkand. Meshrep (Mashrap) is traditional Uyghur entertainment (such as singing, daning and comedy performance) gathering. Yarkant (Yarkand) County is a county in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China, located on the southern rim of the Taklamakan desert in the Tarim Basin. (travelingmipo/Flickr)
March 18, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

China’s treatment of its Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities puts it “in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations,” top U.S. diplomat Mike Pompeo said Wednesday as the U.S. State Department issued its global survey of rights conditions.

U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo noted that the annual report highlighted abuses in Iran, South Sudan, Nicaragua and many other nations, including some U.S. allies.

“But then there’s China, which is in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations,” he said.

“In just 2018, China intensified its campaign of detaining Muslim minority groups at record levels. Today, more than 1 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslims are interned in reeducation camps designed to erase their religious and ethnic identities,” added Pompeo.

A second U.S. official briefing reporters on the “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” which covers 2018, had even sharper words for China’s policies in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

“For me, you haven’t seen things like this since the 1930s,” said Michael Kozak, the head of the State Department’s human rights and democracy bureau, in an apparent reference to the policies of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union.

“Rounding up, in some estimations … in the millions of people, putting them into camps, and torturing them, abusing them, and trying to basically erase their culture and their religion and so on from their DNA. It’s just remarkably awful.”

“It is one of the most serious human rights violations in the world today,” he said.

authorities in the XUAR have detained more than one million Uyghurs and other Muslims accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas in the camp network since April 2017, often for common religious practices, including praying and attending services.

Though Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the XUAR, told China’s official Xinhua news agency in October 2018 that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.

‘A lot of international scrutiny’

Zakir said in Beijing on Tuesday that China was running boarding schools, not concentration camps, in the country’s far western region

Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers.

Kozak noted the denials and misrepresentations from Beijing, adding: “At least we’re starting to make them realize there is a lot of international scrutiny on this,” he said.

The annual report said “official repression of the freedoms of speech, religion, movement, association, and assembly of Tibetans in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and other Tibetan areas and of Uighurs and other ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang worsened and was more severe than in other areas of the country.”

Despite government denials that China holds any political prisoners, authorities “continued to imprison citizens for reasons related to politics and religion.”

“Human rights organizations estimated tens of thousands of political prisoners remained incarcerated, most in prisons and some in administrative detention,” it said.

China had no immediate response to the annual report. Beijing usually produces its own human rights report on the United States a day after the State Department document comes out.

The report’s section on Myanmar said press freedom had declined and self-censorship had increased in the wake of the jailing of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.

The two men were jailed for seven years after being convicted in September of breaking a colonial-era official secrets law while investigating the killing of 10 Muslim men and boys by security forces and Buddhist civilians in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

Government blocks aid to Rohingya

The report noted fallout from the previous year’s violence against Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine.

“Independent investigations undertaken during the year found evidence that corroborated the 2017 ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Rakhine State and further detailed the military’s killing, rape, and torture of unarmed villagers during a campaign of violence that displaced more than 700,000 Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh,” it said.

“Some evidence suggested preparatory actions on the part of security forces and other actors prior to the start of violence,” said the report, which said that an additional 13,764 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh between January and September.

“The government prevented assistance from reaching displaced Rohingya and other vulnerable populations during the year by using access restrictions on the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies,” it said.

“The military also committed human rights abuses in continuing conflicts in Kachin and Shan States,” the report added.

The report said that “vast majority” of abuses by government soldiers went unpunished, but said non-state groups committed “killings, unlawful use of child soldiers, forced labor of adults and children, and failure to protect civilians in conflict zones” that “rarely resulted in investigations or prosecutions.”

In Vietnam’s one-party communist state, “police and plainclothes authorities routinely mistreated, harassed, and assaulted activists and those involved in demonstrating against the government,” the report said.

In Ho Chi Minh City last June, “police beat and detained some 180 individuals at a stadium related to anti-SEZ and cybersecurity law demonstrations,” said the report.

“There were also numerous reports of police mistreatment and assaults against individuals who were not activists or involved in politics,” it said.

“As of November at least 11 deaths of persons in custody were reported; many were presumed to have been the result of abuse,” added the report.

Cambodia’s ‘pervasive culture of impunity’

In Cambodia, which held an election last year after banning the only significant opposition party and arresting its leader for treason, “security forces…often threatened force against those who opposed Prime Minister Hun Sen and were generally perceived as an armed wing of the ruling CPP (Cambodia People’s Party),” it said.

“The government did not provide evidence of having prosecuted any officials for abuses, including corruption. A pervasive culture of impunity continued,” said the report.

In North Korea, it said, the total number of political prisoners remained unknown, but a South Korean think tank white paper reported the state detained between 80,000 and 120,000 in the “kwanliso” prison camps.

“NGOs and media reported political prisoners were subject to harsher punishments and fewer protections than other prisoners and detainees. The government considered critics of the regime to be political criminals,” it said.

The one-party communist government of Laos “neither prosecuted nor punished officials who committed abuses, and police and security forces committed human rights abuses with impunity,” said the report.

“There was no progress in the 2012 abduction of Sombath Somphone, a prominent civil society leader and retired founder of a nonprofit training center,” it said, referring to the country’s most prominent disappeared figure.

Sombath disappeared on the evening of Dec. 15, 2012, after his jeep was stopped at a police checkpoint outside the capital Vientiane, with video footage showing him later being forced into a white truck and taken away.

Though police promised to investigate, Lao authorities soon backtracked, saying they could not confirm the identity of a man shown in the video driving off in Sombath’s jeep, and refusing offers of outside expert help to analyze the footage.

Before his abduction, Sombath had challenged massive land deals negotiated by the government that had left thousands of rural Lao villagers homeless with little paid in compensation.

Six years after Sombath’s abduction, the State Department said, “the government denied knowledge of his whereabouts and claimed its investigation was continuing.”