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International Relations

US report urges punishment of China officials over Xinjiang abuse

Congressional commission weighs use of Magnitsky Act to target those behind Muslim camps

People mingle in the old town of Kashgar, China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.   © AP

BEIJING (Financial Times) -- A US congressional report has recommended that individual Chinese officials be held accountable for "serious human rights abuse", as China formalises its policy of mass detentions of Uighur Muslims in its frontier region of Xinjiang.

This week, the Xinjiang government updated a law to allow vocational training centres to be used to "educate and transform people who have been influenced by extremism", giving legal backing to mass detention camps built in the region over the past two years.

About one out of every 10 members of the Uighur ethnic group have been detained in the region, by some estimates.

The recommendations of the annual report by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China are not binding on US authorities, but its recommendation of penalties under the US Magnitsky Act may include financial sanctions and visa denials if adopted.

The report represents one of very few governmental responses to the unprecedented detention of Muslim citizens within China. Mike Pence, the US vice-president, also took up the issue in a broad policy speech on China last week.

Reports by the Financial Times and other foreign media have documented the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of Uighurs from cities across Xinjiang, and the separation of families as adults are sent to camps and children to orphanages.

Criteria for internment include being male, praying regularly, observing Muslim holidays such as Ramadan or possessing religious material. Most of those detained are Uighur, a Turkic people native to Xinjiang who observe the Sufi school of Islam.

"Of particular concern is the mass arbitrary internment of as many as 1m or more [Uighurs] and other Muslim ethnic minorities in 'political re-education' camps in western China," the CECC report read. "Reports indicate that this may be the largest incarceration of an ethnic minority population since World War Two."

The report recommended deploying the Magnitsky Act "to levy financial sanctions or deny US entry visas" on Chinese involved in arbitrary detention and other abuses.

The legislation was initially developed to punish Russian officials complicit in the 2009 death, in prison, of tax accountant Sergei Magnitsky. The idea of using the act to combat the detention of the Uighurs has gained currency among human rights activists and some congressional representatives.

The most likely target would be Chen Quanguo, Communist party secretary of Xinjiang, who has presided over the mass detentions. He was transferred to Xinjiang in 2016 from Tibet, where he oversaw a " grid management" system of policing of neighbourhoods and tight controls over Buddhist monasteries.

Beijing has supported a crackdown in Xinjiang over fears that Uighurs who have fought in war zones, including Afghanistan or Iraq, could return to fight for independence or an Islamic state. Those fears were underscored by ethnic riots in Urumqi in 2009, during which almost 200 people died, and by an attack at a Kunming railway station in 2014, in which eight Uighurs armed with knives killed 31 people.

China has been framing the camps as "vocational education" ever since a UN panel began examining the issue. In July, the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid, reported that 1.26m people had been enrolled in "government-organised occupational education programmes" in 2017 in Kashgar and Hotan, in the Uighur heartland, a number that matches academics' and exiles' estimates of the numbers detained.

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