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China: Rights Groups Accuse Beijing Of Suppressing Uyghurs, Smothering Islam

Two U.S.-based human rights groups are accusing China of misusing the country's laws to crack down on the Muslim Uyghur community, the largest non-Chinese ethnic minority in the region. In a joint report, Human Rights Watch and Human Rights in China say the systematic repression of religion continues in the western Xinjiang Autonomous Province as a matter of "considered state policy." In its first public reaction to the report, China says ethnic groups in Xinjiang enjoy all religious freedoms according to the constitution.

Prague, 12 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the editor of the new report, said one anecdote in particular reveals the extent of what HRW and Human Rights in China call the "wholesale assault by the state" against the Uyghurs.

"One [Uyghur] guy told us how he was working in a government office, and his job was to bring food supplies to schools. And he was told that he had to either shave his beard off, because it was a sign of being a Muslim, or quit his job. And because of the poor economic situation, he chose to shave his beard off. This is a very normal experience for people there," Adams said.

Adams says the new report is based on Communist Party and government documents, local regulations, official newspaper accounts, and interviews conducted in Xinjiang. He says the investigation uncovered a previously unknown body of Chinese laws with the aim of restricting freedom of religion.
The 114-page report is titled "Devastating Blows: Religious Repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang."

"Our analysis is that these laws and regulations are aimed at stifling Uyghur identity in the name of trying to decrease support for a separate Uyghur state, a separate Xinjiang. Now there will be some anti-Muslim animus involved here. There will be people who are targeting Muslims within the Chinese government because they are Muslims, and there will be people who are targeting Islam because they see it as the motive force for separatism. So there are mixed motives here," Adams said.

The 114-page report is titled "Devastating Blows: Religious Repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang." The title comes from a statement attributed to Xinjiang party Secretary Wang Lequan in 2003. Wang said Xinjiang would keep up its intense crackdown on what he called ethnic separatist forces in the region and "deal them devastating blows without showing any mercy."

The report speaks of a "complex architecture" of laws, regulations, and policies that deny Uyghurs religious freedom.

"There is quite a long list of new provisions," Adams said. "They cover things such as how people can dress when they go to work, particularly in government institutions. They have regulations limiting and in some cases prohibiting the participation of children in religious activities. We have documents that acknowledge very large increases in the number of Uyghurs being imprisoned or held for alleged religious and state security offenses."

The Uyghurs are a Turkic-speaking minority of some 8 million people whose traditional homeland lies in oil-rich northwest China, in what is the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Thousands are believed to be detained in the region each year for "illegal religious activity." Beijing fears Uyghur separatist activity and what it calls Islamic-based terrorism in the region.

"They don't want Islam to become an organizing force for political thinking," Adams said. "I think that's it in a nutshell. The fear is that people who have a heightened Islamic identity may start banding together. They may start thinking alike. This is not about radical Islam, although the Chinese government tries to make it out to be. This is about normal Islam, about normal religious identity."

HRW says China has used the post-11 September 2001 environment to claim that individuals disseminating peaceful religious and cultural messages in Xinjiang are terrorists. It notes that, in 2002, Beijing successfully lobbied Washington to support its efforts to place the East Turkestan Islamic Movement on the United Nations' list of terrorist organizations.

HRW acknowledges that separatist views are a reality in Xinjiang, and that some Uyghur extremists do advocate the violent overthrow of Chinese rule. But it says such activities provide no justification for what it calls the "broad denial of basic rights."

A spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, Qin Gang, responded to the accusations during a news conference today in Beijing. "All ethnic groups in Xinjiang have religious freedom according to the constitution," Qin said. "All ethnic peoples in Xinjiang have full civil rights, including the freedom to worship. The East Turkestan [Islamic] Movement has collaborated with international terrorist groups and initiated many violent terrorist activities, both inside and outside China. This is a threat not only to China, but also to the neighboring area's peace and stability. Cracking down on the East Turkestan movement is an important part of the global war against terrorism. We should not confuse it with other religious or ethnic issues."

Human Rights Watch and Human Rights in China say that if China considers itself a respectable member of the world community, it should permit UN human rights reporters to visit Xinjiang.

Adams said HRW believes this kind of scrutiny is in China's interest and that it could lead to the emergence of more moderate forces. He said the situation in Xinjiang is "quite critical" and that polarization in the province is enormous. But he added that Beijing's knee-jerk reaction has been to oppose such monitoring.

HRW believes the international community must challenge China's claims that its actions are in the name of suppressing terrorism, and ask Beijing to prove this link in each case.

"The most important thing is -- at the sharp end of this -- is to make sure that Uyghurs who are in exile are not returned to China, because there is a long record of persecution of politically active Uyghurs," Adams said. "The Chinese have asked the United States, for instance, to return Uyghurs who are in Guantanamo Bay. And they've asked the Pakistanis, where a number of Uyghurs have fled, and they've asked Kazakhstan, where other Uyghurs have fled, to return these people. And we're quite sure, given the environment we've described here, that Uyghurs who are returned will be persecuted."

Adams said HRW sent a letter to the Chinese Embassy in Washington, requesting a meeting to discuss the findings of its new report. He said the letter was returned unopened, with the word "REJECTED" handwritten on the envelope.
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    Grant Podelco

    Grant Podelco is the editor in chief of RFE/RL's English-language website. He first joined RFE/RL in Prague in 1995 as a senior correspondent after working for many years as a writer and editor for daily newspapers in New York, Oregon, and Texas. He reported from Afghanistan in November 2002 to mark the one-year anniversary of the fall of the Taliban.