This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The U.S. State Department called on China Wednesday to release the more than one million Uyghurs and other Muslims held in detention camps in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), urging Beijing to let them reunite with their families for the Eid holiday.
“The human rights abuses in Xinjiang must end and they must end now. We call on the Chinese government to release all Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities arbitrarily detained throughout Xinjiang so that they may return home to celebrate the Eid holiday with their loved ones,” department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said.
In a strongly worded statement a news briefing in Washington, Ortagus said that Eid, the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan which falls on June 4 or 5 this year, made it “important to speak up for the victims of China’s massive campaign of repression against Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.”
“The U.S. is alarmed by the arbitrary and unjust detention of more than one million people; widespread reports of torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment; ever-present high-tech surveillance; and coerced practices contrary to people’s faiths,” she said.
Up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been held since April 2017. Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets has shown that those in the camps routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions.
“Throughout this campaign the Chinese government aims to force its own citizens to renounce their ethnic identities and their Islamic faith,” said Ortagus.
She said that even considering China’s long history of hostility to religion “the repression of Chinese Muslims stands out as particularly cruel and inhumane during the holy month.”
RFA has reported that detainees in camps have been forced to break Ramadan fasting and have also been routinely fed pork, a forbidden meat.
The State Department comments come a week after the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a bill that seeks accountability for China’s harsh crackdown on Muslim Uyghurs.
The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which requires endorsement by the full U.S. Senate and ratification by the House of Representatives, would appoint a special State Department coordinator on Xinjiang and require regular reports on the camps, the surveillance network and the security threats posed by the crackdown.
“Increased unrest in the Xinjiang region as a result of the central government’s severe repression is used in Orwellian fashion by the Government of the People’s Republic of China as evidence of ‘terrorism’ and ‘separatism’ and as an excuse for further disproportionate response,” the legislation says.
The legislation requires U.S. intelligence agencies to report to Congress on the “regional security threat posed by the crackdown and the frequency with which Central Asian countries are forcibly returning Turkic Muslim refugees and asylum seekers,” as well as a list of Chinese companies involved in building and running the camps.
Though Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, China has tried to change the discussion, describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization and help protect the country from terrorism.
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, has said that some 1.5 million people are or have been detained in the camps—equivalent to just under 1 in 6 members of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR—after initially putting the number at 1.1 million.
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, said in March that people “haven’t seen things like this since the 1930s” and called the internment of more than a million Uyghurs “one of the most serious human rights violations in the world today.”
In November 2018, Scott Busby, the deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State, said there are “at least 800,000 and possibly up to a couple of million” Uyghurs and others detained at re-education camps in the XUAR without charges, citing U.S. intelligence assessments.