GENEVA (Reuters) -- Western countries including Canada, France and Germany called on China on Tuesday to close down detention camps, which activists say hold 1 million Uighurs and other Muslims.
At a debate at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva -- which reports on human rights in each U.N. member state every five years and is reviewing China's record this week -- Beijing said it protected the freedoms of ethnic minorities.
But one after another, Western countries spoke out against what they described as a deterioration in China's human rights since the last review, especially over its treatment of Muslims in the western province of Xinjiang.
Beijing should "halt massive imprisonment" and "guarantee freedom of religion and belief, including in Tibet and Xinjiang," France's ambassador Francois Rivasseau said. Germany called for an end to "all unlawful detention including unconstitutional mass detention of Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang."
Canada's envoy Rosemary McCarney said Ottawa was "deeply concerned by credible reports of mass detention, repression and surveillance of Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang.
"Canada recommends that China release Uighurs and other Muslims who have been detained arbitrarily and without due process for their ethnicity or religion," she said. Similar statements were made by diplomats from Australia and Japan.
China on Tuesday rejected Western countries' criticism of suspected mass detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang province, saying that the allegations were "seriously far away from facts". "We will not accept politically-driven accusations from a few countries that are fraught with biases," Le Yucheng, Chinese vice minister of foreign affairs, told the U.N. Human Rights Council.
A United Nations panel of human rights experts said on Aug. 10 it had received many credible reports that 1 million ethnic Uighurs in China were being held in what resembles a "massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy."
China has said in the past that Xinjiang faces a threat from Islamist militants and separatists. It rejects all accusations of mistreatment and denies mass internment, although Chinese officials have said some citizens guilty of minor offences were being sent to vocational centres to work.
Around 1,000 Tibetan and Uighur protesters from around Europe protested outside the U.N. headquarters in Geneva during the debate.