Uyghur ‘people’s tribunal’ opens in London to investigate allegations of genocide, rights abuses in China

3 min read
Witness Omir Bekali gives evidence at the tribunal

A “people’s tribunal” set up to assess whether China’s alleged rights abuses against the Uyghur people constitute genocide has opened in London, with witnesses alleging inmates at detention camps are routinely humiliated, tortured and abused.

Chairman Geoffrey Nice said more than three dozen witnesses would make “grave” allegations against Chinese authorities during four days of hearings.

The tribunal, made up of lawyers, academics and businesspeople, does not have UK government backing or any powers to sanction or punish China.

But organisers hope the process of publicly laying out evidence will compel international action to tackle alleged abuses against the Uyghurs, a largely Muslim ethnic group.

According to the United Nations, at least one million Uyghurs have been detained in the internment camps in China's northwestern Xinjiang province.
According to the United Nations, at least 1 million Uyghurs have been detained in China’s internment camps.(AP: Alberto Pezzali)

Mr Nice, a British barrister who led the prosecution of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and has worked with the International Criminal Court, said the forum would create “a permanent body of evidence and a record, if found, of crimes perpetrated”.

Funded by the World Uyghur Congress and individual donations, the inquiry is modelled on previous “people’s tribunals,” including one organised in the 1960s by philosophers Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre to investigate the Unite States’ actions in the Vietnam War.

The London tribunal is the latest attempt to hold China accountable for alleged rights abuses against the Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim and ethnic Turkic minorities.‘A very personal thing for me’Uyghurs in Australia say they are elated after the US released an official statement accusing China of committing genocide against the ethnic group.Read more

An estimated 1 million people or more — most of them Uyghurs — have been confined in re-education camps in China’s western Xinjiang region in recent years, according to researchers.

Chinese authorities have been accused of forced labour, systematic forced birth control and torture, and separating children from incarcerated parents.

In April, Britain’s Parliament — though not the British government — followed legislatures in Belgium, the Netherlands and Canada in declaring that Beijing’s policies against the Uyghurs amounted to genocide and crimes against humanity.

The US government has also done the same.

The first witness to testify on Friday, teacher Qelbinur Sidik, said guards routinely humiliated inmates at a camp for men in Xinjiang where she taught Mandarin-language classes in 2016.

“Guards in the camp did not treat the prisoners as human beings. They were treated less than dogs,” she said through an interpreter.

“The things that I have witnessed and experienced, I can’t forget.”

A woman rides a motorbike with several children as they ride past a picture showing China's President Xi Jinping
Authorities have been accused of imposing forced labour in Western China’s Xinjiang region.(AP: Andy Wong)

Another witness, Omir Bekali, said he was held in three camps for Uyghur and Kazakh men accused of extremism and terrorism.

He said up to 50 prisoners were held in each cell, given unknown drugs and subjected to harsh physical punishment.

He said some inmates he knew died under torture.

Tribunal witnesses who spoke to The Associated Press before the hearings included a woman who said she was forced to have an abortion when she was 6.5 months pregnant, a former doctor who spoke of draconian birth control policies, and a former detainee who alleged he was “tortured day and night” by Chinese soldiers while he was imprisoned in the remote border region.

A huge detention complex in Xinjiang seen by satellite, it has a high perimeter wall with watchtowers.
This enormous detention complex in Kashgar, Xinjiang, could house over 10,000 people.(Maxar via Google Earth)

Beijing flatly rejects the allegations.

Officials have characterised the camps, which they say are now closed, as vocational training centres to teach the Chinese language, job skills and the law to support economic development and combat extremism.

China saw a wave of Xinjiang-related terror attacks through 2016.

Mr Nice said China had been asked to participate but its embassy had “neither acknowledged nor replied to letters sent”.

The Chinese embassy in London has not responded to requests for comment, but officials in China have said the tribunal has been set up by “anti-China forces” to spread lies.

Western governments, including Britain’s, have also declined to get involved, Mr Nice said.

The tribunal plans to hold another four days of hearings in September and hopes to issue its judgment by the end of the year.

Tony Simon

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