Mike Pompeo says US ‘deeply troubled’ as China ‘harasses Uygur activists’ families’ in Xinjiang

Owen Churchill

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed his “sincere condolences” on Tuesday to Uygur individuals whose activism – including meetings with US officials – has reportedly led to reprisals against their relatives in China.

The US government was “deeply troubled” by accounts that the Chinese government had “harassed, imprisoned or arbitrarily detained” Uygur Muslim activists and survivors of Xinjiang internment camps who had made their stories public, Pompeo, Washington’s top diplomat, said in a statement.

The United Nations estimates that around one million Uygurs and people from other largely Muslim minority groups have been swept up in China’s mass internment programme in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

Beijing calls the camps vocational training centres, a claim that has jarred with the testimonies of former detainees and even regional authorities’ own documents, which refer to coercive internment and political indoctrination.

Since the mass internment programme began in early 2017, relatives of those believed to have been detained have found themselves caught between the desire to campaign for their family members and the concern that doing so could compound their predicament.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US was “deeply troubled” over reports of reprisals against the families of Uygur activists who had publicised events in Xinjiang. Photo: AP

State Department officials have met with a number of those individuals both publicly and privately, and have even consulted them when considering sanctions against Chinese officials over the internment camps.

In some cases, Pompeo said on Tuesday, “abuses” against the relatives of Uygur activists had occurred soon after senior State Department officials had met with the activists.

US calls for UN to demand unfettered access to China’s Xinjiang region

In September, the US invited a former detainee, Zumrat Dawut, to address government representatives from over 30 countries at an event on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

Dawut recently learned that her father, who had been reportedly detained and interrogated multiple times by Chinese authorities in Xinjiang in recent years, “recently passed away under unknown circumstances”, according to Pompeo.

The possibility of reprisals was a cause of “big concern” within the Uygur diaspora in the US, said Omer Kanat, director of the Washington-based Uygur Human Rights Project (UHRP).

Kanat said that all of the approximately 5,000 members of the Uygur community in the US would know of a relative or loved one who had been detained in Xinjiang, and yet “only a handful of people” were willing to speak out publicly because of the Chinese government’s “effective” strategy of intimidation.

Others who had been “directly impacted by the Chinese Communist Party’s campaign of repression”, said Pompeo on Tuesday, included Ferkat Jawdat and Arfat Erkin, two US-based activists who met with Pompeo in March.

In a post on Twitter, Jawdat said his aunt and uncle were sent to prison to serve eight- and nine-year sentences in the days following the March meeting.

US sanctions Chinese officials over ‘brutal suppression’ in Xinjiang

As with many similar events and public remarks made by US officials, the March meeting drew a stern response from Beijing, which accused Washington of “using Xinjiang-related affairs as tools to interfere in China's internal affairs”.

The camps have driven a wedge through the international community, with a group of mainly European countries siding with the US in castigating Beijing over its measures in the region. Another clique of countries, including Russia, Belarus and a number of Middle Eastern and African nations, has sided with Beijing.

The US recently became the first country to take punitive measures against China over its actions in Xinjiang. In October, the departments of State and Commerce unveiled a suite of sanctions targeting Chinese companies, government entities and officials for their alleged involvement in Beijing’s “campaign of repression in Xinjiang”.

US lawmakers and human rights activists have welcomed the sanctions, yet Congress continues to pressure the Trump administration to take further action. Legislation passed by the Senate in September calls on the FBI to investigate any attempts by Chinese officials to “harass, threaten, or intimidate” Uygurs and other Turkic Muslims living in the US, and to issue a report detailing efforts by law enforcement to protect those individuals.

The House version of the bill was approved by its Foreign Affairs Committee last week and awaits a vote on the House floor.

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