BEIJING -- Officials from China's remote western region of Xinjiang on Tuesday denied the existence of concentration camps for ethnic Uighur people, saying instead that many Muslims there attended schools aimed at eliminating terrorism.
They are vocational school-style training centers for "eliminating the soil for the survival of terrorism," Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, told reporters on the sidelines of the National People's Congress in Beijing.
China is facing growing international criticism for what activists say are mass detention camps in the region holding more than 1 million Uighurs and other Muslims.
Zakir, an ethnic Uighur, blasted international media for "deliberately fabricating" the facts by calling the centers concentration camps. He said they provided students with free meals and accommodation, and taught them necessary working skills, adding that Halal food was provided and students were free to visit their families on a regular basis.
Citing terrorism fears, China has sought to suppress Islam for decades in Xinjiang, a vast, resource-rich region. About half the population of 24 million are Uighur, with their religion and resistance to Chinese rule long making Beijing uncomfortable.
The deputy chief of the Xinjiang branch of the Communist Party of China said that the region had not experienced riots in more than two years due to the party's crackdown on terrorism. But he added that "we should stay alert and never lose our grip because anti-terrorism is a long-term and complex matter."
"In the future, there will be fewer and fewer people in the schools," he said. "Radicalism is often covered with a religious coat to confuse people's minds, especially those least-educated ones."
Journalists packed the Xinjiang delegation's room in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. These events during the annual parliamentary session are rare chance for reporters to publicly put questions to senior officials.
United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said last week that she was seeking access to China to look into reports of arbitrary detentions of Muslims in Xinjiang.
Last month, Turkey demanded that China close the "concentration camps," saying that more than 1 million Uighurs were being tortured and "politically brainwashed" in China.
"The reintroduction of internment camps in the XXIst century and the policy of systematic assimilation against the Uighur Turks carried out by the authorities of China is a great shame for humanity," Turkey's foreign ministry spokesperson Hami Aksoy said in a statement.
In an interview last year with the Nikkei Asian Review, Dolkun Isa, the exiled leader of the World Uyghur Congress, said that about 3 million people were being held for indefinite periods with no means of contacting family members.
On Tuesday, Isa told Nikkei that the situation in the region continues to deteriorate.
"The camps are clearly an attempt to totally assimilate and control the Uighurs and other Turkic peoples in the region," Isa said, following the comments by Xinjiang officials. "It is abundantly clear that this was never about terrorism. The Chinese government is using this excuse to try and justify its actions to the international community and to silence criticism of its human rights record."
Riots in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi in 2009 resulted in the death of nearly 200 people and police said that Uighurs orchestrated an attack near Beijing's Tiananmen Square that killed two tourists in 2013. The government in Beijing is said to be using facial-recognition systems in the Xinjiang region.
While only about 1.5% of China's population live in Xinjiang, the area accounted for more than 20% of arrests in the country in 2017, according to data compiled by activist group Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
Zhang Jun, prosecutor general of the Supreme People's Court of China, said in a work report Tuesday that counterterrorism and achieving stability in Xinjiang were "heavy" tasks.
"We resolutely maintain national political security and social order," he said. "We actively participate in the struggle against separatism and terrorism."
Akihide Anzai in Beijing contributed to this article