The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on Thursday urged Bulgaria to refrain from repatriating ethnic Uyghurs seeking asylum back to China, saying that doing so would put them at risk of persecution and constitute violations of its obligations as a member of the European Union.
Forcefully repatriating the Uyghurs to China, or sending them to a third country that can’t guarantee them safe harbor, would violate their right to life and put them at risk of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment under Articles 2 and 3 of the EU Convention on Human Rights, the court, based in Strasbourg, France, said in its ruling.
The ECHR cited the Uyghurs’ complaints that if returned to China they would face “persecution, ill-treatment, and arbitrary detention,” as well as the possibility of execution, and ruled “not to remove the applicants” from the country.
Authorities in northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are believed to have detained some 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas in a vast network of internment camps since April 2017.
While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, China last year changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
But reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets indicate 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, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Thursday’s ruling applied to five Uyghur applicants who fled the XUAR to Turkey between 2013 and 2015, and relocated to Bulgaria in July 2017, where they applied for asylum but were rejected by the States Refugee Agency in a decision that was upheld by the Haskovo Administrative Court in January 2018.
In its rejection of their appeal, the administrative court cited what it said was their failure to prove that they had fled persecution back home, and that same month the head of Bulgaria’s State Agency for National Security ordered their expulsion on national security grounds.
Another appeal was dismissed by the Supreme Administrative Court in May last year, and Bulgaria’s government later revealed that the final ruling was made based on arguments by the State Agency for National Security that at least three of the applicants could pose a threat to country because of their links to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which was considered to be a terrorist group.
On Sept. 3, 2003, the U.S. placed ETIM on the Treasury Department’s list of terrorist organizations, but by the end of the year determined that the Guantanamo detainees were not security risks and eventually allowed all of them to be resettled to third countries, where they were not at risk of persecution by the Chinese government.
In 2009, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. government had failed to present sufficient evidence that ETIM was linked to either Al Qaeda or the Taliban, and while the group remains on the Treasury Department’s terror list, there is little to suggest that it has made significant inroads in China, nor that what limited amount of Uyghur radicalization exists in the country presents a significant security risk.
ECHR noted in its ruling that exile groups the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) and the International Uyghur Human Rights and Democracy Foundation, as well as London-based rights group Amnesty International and several members of the European Parliament, have asked Bulgaria not to remove the applicants.
The ECHR had also indicated to Bulgaria in January 2018 that the Uyghurs should not be expelled while it was reviewing their case.
Two of the five original applicants have since left Bulgaria willingly, and Thursday’s ruling did not apply to them.
Speaking to RFA's Uyghur Service on Thursday, WUC President Dolkun Isa welcomed the ECHR's decision, noting that he had met with the applicants in February last year and met with local legal groups working to assist them.
“We were worried about their potential deportation to China, but now I am quite pleased to know that the ECHR made its final ruling barring Bulgaria from deporting them," he said.
"This is a righteous decision by an independent court in Europe, which sets a precedent that Uyghurs sent back to China will face persecution. This decision is a victory for the Uyghur people.”
The decision on Thursday came a week after Estonia—another EU member state—warned in its 2020 annual NATO member intelligence report that China’s ruling Communist Party (CPC) is targeting European leaders as “pawns” to help carry out its objectives in the region.
“It is important to understand that in the eyes of the CPC, decision-makers in other countries are only useful pawns to help implement CPC strategies,” Estonia’s Foreign Intelligence Agency said in its report.
“The underlying goal is to impose its own worldview and standards, building a Beijing-led international environment that appeals to China.”
The Chinese Embassy in Talinn slammed the assessment as “characterized by ignorance [and] prejudice” and warned it would “hurt [the] good feelings of Chinese people” toward Estonia.
The embassy demanded that Estonia retract the “distorted report” and instead embrace “useful and practical efforts to support development of bilateral relations.”
On Tuesday, Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu brushed off China’s criticism, saying his country’s foreign intelligence agency had come to its conclusions “based on their own expertise,” and advised the EU to form a united front in its dealings with Beijing.
Estonia’s assessment of China came ahead of the Munich Security Conference, where U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper urged European allies to prevent telecom giant Huawei and other Chinese companies from building their next generation of wireless technology, citing concerns that such partnerships could put intelligence-sharing at risk.
The U.S. has sought to dissuade its European allies from embracing Huawei’s 5G technology, which it sees as an entryway for Chinese intelligence, though several European nations have said they are attracted to a partnership with the company because of the low cost of its infrastructure.
Last year, Washington added Huawei and 70 affiliates to a list companies that are banned from acquiring components and technology from U.S. firms without U.S. government approval.
Reported by Joshua Lipes and Alim Seytoff for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff.