The fight to confront China’s rights abuses of Uyghur Muslims


WASHINGTON— The U.S. House of Representatives passed the UYGHUR Act of 2019 by a nearly unanimous vote of 407 to 1. The act would impose sanctions on senior Chinese officials involved in the country’s mass detention of its Muslim Uyghur minority. It also condemns “gross human rights violations” against the Uyghurs and calls for “an end to arbitrary detention, torture, and harassment of these communities inside and outside China.” The bill was passed Dec. 3.

A delegate, left, from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region speaks during the Xinjiang delegation group’s meeting on the sideline of the National People’s Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 10, 2015. Chinese officials said that members of the country’s Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority have gone overseas to fight with the Islamic State group, which controls sections of Syria and Iraq, and returned to take part in plots at home.

Uyghurs are a mostly Muslim ethnic group that live in Xinjiang, an area in Turkistan that borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. They comprise more than half the region’s population of 25 million. The Uyghurs are the largest group, speak a Turkic language and have historically faced religious persecution. The international community has demanded the Chinese government halt it’s abuse, torture and mistreatment of the Uyghurs.

The Xinjiang region is home to an estimated 12 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities who have long reported persecution at the hands of the Han Chinese, the country’s ethnic majority. In recent years, Xinjiang has been blanketed with high-tech surveillance cameras and police checkpoints that single out Uyghurs for identification checks.

The U.S., human rights groups and independent analysts estimate that about one million Muslims have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang’s heavily guarded internment camps, which the Chinese government calls vocational training centers. Former detainees and their family members describe horrendous conditions and mistreatment in what Chinese officials dubbed “re-education centers,” to combat terrorism and integrate the ethnic minority group into the broader Chinese society. Critics said the centers resembled prisons where Uyghur’s were forced to renounce their faith and swear loyalty to China’s ruling Communist Party and were subject to repeated political indoctrination, often not understanding why they were being held in the facilities.

The U.S. Senate unanimously approved the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act on Sept. 11 and Congress must reconcile the bills so the U.S. policy can be enacted into law.

“The Chinese Government and Communist Party is working to systematically wipe out the ethnic and cultural identities of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. Today, Congress took another important step to hold Chinese officials accountable for egregious and ongoing human rights abuses committed against the Uyghurs,” Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said.

“I applaud the House for taking swift action and passing an amended version of my bill and I look forward to working with my Senate colleagues to get it passed and sent to the president for enactment,” he added.

The news was well received by Uyghur support groups. “This action by the U.S. Congress paves the way for other countries to act,” said Uyghur Human Rights Project Executive Director Omer Kanat. “Now that both the Senate and the House have gone on the record in two overwhelming votes to reshape American policy to address the crisis, it is time for Germany, the UK, Australia, Canada, and other countries to pass similar legislation,” Mr. Kanat said.

“We are grateful to both the Senate and the House for demonstrating strong bipartisan cooperation in addressing the agony of the Uyghurs. Each and every speech on the House floor tonight was a forceful indictment of crimes against humanity. Tonight’s action gives Uyghurs hope,” he added.

The House bill would enact export controls to prevent U.S. technology from being used to bolster the Chinese government’s total-control surveillance capabilities. This would complement the Commerce Department’s October 2019 action sanctioning several Chinese tech firms complicit in building the security state in East Turkestan.

The evidence of the Chinese tech sector’s deep involvement in human rights abuses in the region continues to build, and Uyghur Human Rights Project welcomes legislation to ensure that American firms are not complicit in enabling their abuses.

The Chinese government deny all abuses. “Vocational education centers in the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region are not concentration or re-education camps as portrayed in some media reports,” Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the regional government explained at a March gathering of Xinjiang delegates of the Communist Party at the National People’s Congress.

“Instead, they have proved effective in eliminating religious extremism in the region,” he said. The claims that trainees are abused and their freedom’s restricted in the centers are inaccurate, there is no way there are more than one million people in them, he argued.

“In fact, our centers are like boarding schools where the students eat and live for free.”

The Chinese report since establishing the reeducation camps there hasn’t been a single terrorist attack in Xinjiang in the past three years.

Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry said the following in a statement, “The bill deliberately smears the human rights conditions in Xijang, slanders China’s efforts in de-radicalization and counterterrorism and viciously attacks the Chinese government’s Xijang policy. It seriously violates international law and basic norms governing international relations, and grossly interferes in China’s internal affairs. China is strongly indignant at and firmly opposed to it.”

“Trainees take courses that prepare them to succeed under local employment conditions,” the Chinese Embassy in the U.S. said in a Dec. 3 tweet.

A testimony of fear

Zumuret Dawut, a Uyghur Muslim from East Turkistan, China was accused of having an “ideological illness” by Chinese police and was arrested. She was severely beaten, injected with unknown drugs and forced to learn Mandarin Chinese.

One day while detained she shared her food with an older ailing detainee. She was then beaten mercilessly. She cried out, “Oh Allah (God)!” and was beaten worse. She laid on the floor for two days.

Ms. Dawut shared her chilling testimony with members of the media Nov. 20, as the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement released the locations of 209 suspected secret prisons in China.

Muslims are routinely arrested for asking for “halal food” in a restaurant, growing a beard, being an imam, praying or for downloading religious content on their phone. Ms. Dawut was arrested for contacting Muslim foreigners on her phone and having a visa to America.

Luckily her husband is Pakistani and was relentless in getting her released, but not before she was forced to renounce her faith and promise not to speak about what happened to her there.

The oppression was too much. Ms. Dawut’s husband wanted to take his family out of China. They already had visas to America but had to get permission from the Chinese government.

“They told me I could only go to Pakistan to visit my in-laws if I was sterilized first. That was the condition. My husband was against it. It was against our religion, but it was the only way I could leave. I did it. We came to the U.S. instead,” said Ms. Dawut.

“You might think all the things you hear about what’s happening couldn’t possibly be true. But they are. People are suffering, really suffering just because they are Muslim,” she added.

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