Ethnic Uyghurs in China’s far western Xinjiang region are expected to face the brunt of a beefed up anti-terrorism law which together with plans to legalize secret detention can further stifle dissent, rights groups and experts say.
China's parliament at the weekend adopted legislation strengthening the country's counter-terrorism law, saying it was aimed at safeguarding social stability.
It gives a legal definition of terrorism and clarifies when China's anti-terrorism forces should act and against whom, legislators said.
The government is also required to issue a list of "terrorists" and terror groups and outline measures to be taken to confront them, including freezing their assets.
Beijing has often said that its primary terrorism threat comes from the Xinjiang region, where Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people, resent Chinese rule and controls on their religion, culture and language.
Changes to the terrorism law are "broad" and could be used to “interpret dissent as terrorism,” said Henryk Szadziewski, of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project.
“Of course it doesn’t overtly target Uyghurs, but I think that the primary security threat in the mind of the Chinese government has been Uyghurs in terms of ‘terrorism.’
Other minority groups, such as Tibetans, could also be targeted under this particular law,” Szadziewski said.
“But what’s between the lines is that the Uyghurs are going to receive more of the brunt of this particular law. If you look at just the convictions or the arrests on ‘endangering state security,’ the number of Uyghurs arrested against any other group of people is disproportionate,” he said.
“I don’t see that trend changing under this particular law.”
In September, courts in the the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region sentenced four Uyghurs to death in connection with a series of July attacks in two cities in the region which left more than 30 people dead.
The government blamed the incidents in Kashgar and Hotan on religious militants and separatists.
China says that militant groups allied with Al-Qaeda and Central Asian militants operate in Xinjiang, seeking to set up an independent state called East Turkestan.
In the worst violence in recent years, ethnic unrest in Xinjiang's capital in Urumqi in July 2009 left at least 200 people dead.
Terrorism as a 'pretense'
China's state media said the new legal provisions will define "terrorist acts as those which are intended to induce public fear or to coerce state organs or international organizations by means of violence, sabotage, threats or other tactics."
"These acts cause or aim to cause severe harm to society by causing casualties, bringing about major economic losses, damaging public facilities or disturbing social order," the official Xinhua news agency said.
"Instigating, funding or assisting with other means are also terrorist acts," it said.
Sophie Richardson of the New York-based Human Rights Watch said that the Chinese government has been using the terrorism threat as a "pretense" to persecute dissent in the country, rather than to promote national security or law enforcement.
“And so the idea that there will now actually be expanded police powers to define what constitutes terrorism is quite problematic,” she said.
“Rather than narrowing or resolving an existing problem, from our perspective, it’s actually broadening the problem.”
She said Chinese legislators likely made the call for the amendment as part of an ongoing push to increase controls in other legal areas, including a recent effort to alter criminal procedure law to allow for expanded police powers of detention.
Beijing recently announced proposed changes to the Chinese criminal code that would allow authorities to detain suspects for up to six months in a secret location, effectively legalizing house arrest routinely imposed on activists and dissidents.
Under the changes, police will be allowed to hold suspects under "residential surveillance" in an undisclosed location for up to six months in cases involving terrorism, crimes endangering national security, or major corruption, according to reports.
Suspects could be held without their families or lawyers being notified.
Richardson noted that charges frequently leveled against Uyghurs, including “incitement to subversion,” are also used nationwide—often against critics of the Chinese government.
“It’s true that some of those have been used disproportionately in Xinjiang and I suspect that might be possible with this new amendment as well. But it unfortunately probably won’t be limited to the Uyghur population,” Richardson said.
She cited concerns with the vague wording of the new legal provisions which sought to grant “very expansive powers to police” which are “very difficult to challenge.”
Chinese legislators also believe the new law will help China's international participation in the fight against terrorism.
An enduring global acceptance for anti-terrorism legislation may have emboldened the Chinese government to push through similar domestic laws “and not endure too much criticism,” Richardson said.
“I think that most of the international community treats claims of terrorism in China with skepticism and this is because there is no way to independently verify or check this information that is coming out of China,” Szadziewski said.
“This may be some sort of attempt to justify those previous interpretations by government officials through Chinese legal channels … however the judiciary and the Chinese government are closely aligned, so in my mind that particular issue doesn’t go away.”
Doubts over Chinese claims of terrorist acts will only be removed if Beijing produces compelling evidence and allows independent and international investigators into the country, according to Szadziewski.
“The root of the problem with this particular law is who is doing the defining? And I think that based on past records, the Chinese government cannot be trusted to be an independent adjudicator of activities that are considered coercive,” he said.
“I think that the law in itself and the way it is being codified means that those people who express consent in peaceful ways may fall foul of the law of terrorism, which in itself is a flagrant abuse of human rights.”
Reported by Mamatjan Juma for RFA’s Uyghur service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.