Police in southwest China’s Guangxi province shot dead one person and detained 21 others who were part of a group of “religious extremists” seeking to cross into neighboring Vietnam, state media said Wednesday.
The report, carried by the official Xinhua news agency, did not identify the members of the group or say where they were from, but Chinese authorities frequently blame religious extremism for violence involving ethnic Uyghur Muslims from China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Xinhua said police had received a tip the group would attempt to cross into Vietnam through the Chinese border town of Pingxiang and sent a team to intercept them.
Other state media reports said one member of the group had stabbed a police officer as they were detained on Sunday night and was shot dead by authorities.
The Associated Press cited a statement by the official website for Guangxi’s Chongzuo city as saying that police reinforcements helped detain the 21 others, adding that the policeman who was attacked was recovering at a local hospital.
The Xinjiang region, which is home to millions of Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, has seen an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012, and which China has blamed on terrorists and Islamist insurgents seeking to establish an independent state.
But rights groups accuse Beijing of heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, including violent police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
Rights groups and exile Uyghur groups on Wednesday questioned reports that members of the group were religious extremists and said Chinese authorities may have used excessive force in detaining them.
“I’m very concerned about the plight and the ultimate fate of those held … [by] Chinese police, and the fact that one of them was shot indicates that the Chinese police used extremely harsh measures in the process of detaining them,” Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) told RFA’s Mandarin Service, suggesting members of the group were ethnic Uyghurs.
“It shows that the Chinese authorities do not shy away from using extreme force in their efforts to prevent Uyghurs from escaping China. Also, Chinese authorities resort to using extreme force when dealing with Uyghurs—an unbearable … reality Uyghurs must face.”
Raxit said that the Chinese government was likely to give members of the group “very hard sentences … to suit its own political purposes.”
He said the Chinese government should refrain from labeling all Uyghurs attempting to leave China as religious extremists and called on Beijing to reconsider its policies in Xinjiang, which he said were driving members of the ethnic group to flee their homeland despite the dangers they face.
Southeast Asia route
Henryk Szadziewski, senior researcher of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, said Sunday’s shooting death might have been an “extrajudicial killing” by Chinese authorities.
“There exists the possibility … that excess force was used against the Uyghur trying to flee China, and in order to cover their tracks, the Chinese have labeled this person a religious extremist,” he said.
“Even if this person was a religious extremist, it doesn’t give them the right to shoot him. They’re also claiming there was an attack with a knife, but it seems like a case of unreasonable force has been applied here.”
He noted that Uyghurs fleeing China had been increasingly crossing into Southeast Asia, noting that nearly 300 Uyghurs have been held in immigration detention camps in Thailand since they were discovered during a raid on a suspected people-smuggling camp in the south of the country ten months ago.
On Wednesday, China and Thailand agreed to step up their cooperation in the fight against illegal immigration and terrorism, according to a joint communique issued by the Chinese government, and Szadziewski said the pact indicated Beijing was “hardening its stance against the [Uyghur] refugees.”
There was no direct reference to the Uyghurs in the Chinese foreign ministry statement.
Reported by Nadia Usaeva for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated by Nadia Usaeva. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.