U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation on Wednesday calling for the release of over a million ethnic Uyghurs detained by China in re-education camps and urging Washington to study the scope of Beijing’s crackdown on the Muslim minority group.
In a press release announcing the launch of the bipartisan bill, in which Republican Representative Chris Smith was joined by Democrat Thomas Suozzi and eight other members of Congress, Smith said the internment of Uyghurs in camps in northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region “should be treated by the international community as a crime against humanity.”
“The Chinese government’s creation of a vast system of what can only be called concentration camps cannot be tolerated in the 21st century,” said Smith, co-chair of the Congressional Executive Commission on China.
“The brutal, religious based persecution of the Uyghurs in China is alarming,” Congressman Suozzi added in prepared remarks on Wednesday. “Xinjiang province has become nothing short of a police state.”
Among other recommendations, the proposed legislation calls on the U.S. Secretary of State to create a special position at the State Department to coordinate the U.S. response to China’s abuses in Xinjiang and to sanction Chinese officials responsible for the crackdown.
The U.S. established a Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues in 2002 in response to repression in that Chinese-ruled region.
The bill also calls on the FBI to track and report on the harassment by China of Uyghurs and other Chinese nationals studying or working in the United States.
Speaking on Wednesday to RFA’s Uyghur Service, Dolkun Isa—president of the Germany-based exile World Uyghur Congress—called the introduction of the bill a measure of “historic significance at a time when the Chinese government is committing ethnic cleansing against the Uyghur people.”
“This is a powerful step taken by the U.S. to address the crimes against humanity that are taking place in East Turkestan,” Isa said, using a name preferred by many Uyghurs to refer to their historic homeland.
“I hope this bill will become legislation soon with the support of both Houses of Congress,” Isa said.
Also speaking to RFA on Wednesday, Uyghur human rights advocate and lawyer Nury Turkel—board chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based Uyghur Human Rights Project—called the bill’s introduction “the first time in history a Western government is deliberating a legislative mandate to protect Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in China.”
“On the occasion of this historic day, I call on the other liberal democracies to put in place similar legislative mandates to protect the Uyghur people who are facing an existential threat in China,” Turkel said, adding, “I also urge the other members of Congress to support this bill in the remainder of this legislative session.”
The proposed legislation was introduced a week after the United States, France, Germany, and 10 other Western countries used a session of the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of China’s human rights record to issue a call on Beijing to close down the political re-education camps.
“We are alarmed by the government of China’s worsening crackdown on Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslims in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region," U.S. charge d'affaires Mark Cassayre was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying at the Geneva meeting.
The United States urged China to "abolish all forms of arbitrary detention, including internment camps in Xinjiang, and immediately release the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of individuals detained in these camps,” he said.
In late August, Smith led a bipartisan group of nearly 20 U.S. lawmakers in writing a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, urging them to level sanctions against officials and entities in China deemed responsible for abusing the rights of ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the XUAR.
The lawmakers identified for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act—created to address human rights abuses by the Putin regime in Russia—XUAR Communist Party secretary Chen Quanguo, who has implemented a litany of harsh policies attacking the rights and freedoms of ethnic Uyghur Muslim residents of Xinjiang since he was appointed to run the region in August 2016.
Beginning in April 2017, Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been jailed or detained in re-education camps throughout Xinjiang, where members of the ethnic group have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
While Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, the Uyghur chairman of Xinjiang’s provincial government, Shohrat Zakir, told China’s official Xinhua news agency last month that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
China’s state media have followed Zakir’s remarks with a massive propaganda campaign promoting the camps, while foreign reporters investigating Xinjiang have reported constant harassment by authorities. Uyghur activists called on China to prove the facilities are for vocational training by opening then up to visitors.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations has shown that those held in the camps are detained against their will, are subjected to political indoctrination and rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, has said that some 1.1 million people are or have been detained in the camps—equating to 10 to 11 percent of the adult Muslim population of Xinjiang.
Reported by Alim Seytoff and Mamatjan Juma for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Richard Finney.