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Amnesty report timed to hurt China in Geneva

By Jim Lobe, IPS, Asia Times, 23 April 1999

WASHINGTON - A new report alleging that authorities in the western province of Xinjiang are guilty of gross human rights violations against the region's largest minority, the mostly Muslim Uighurs, is timed to be weighed in the UN Human Rights Commission debate over China's human rights performance.

Thousands of Uighurs have been detained over the past few years, many of them subject to cruel forms of torture, Amnesty International alleged in the report released in Washington on Wednesday.

Scores more have been executed after questionable trials for terrorism or subversion, while still others have been summarily killed, usually during or after protest or other disturbances which have broken out in the province since 1996, the report said.

These abuses have taken place against a backdrop of growing ethnic unrest, fuelled by a steady influx of Chinese settlers, unemployment, discrimination and curbs on basic rights such as freedom to practice Islam, according to Amnesty.

The 92-page report comes at a time when the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva is considering a U.S.-sponsored resolution condemning China's recent human rights performance, including its treatment of minorities.

This new information regarding violations in the Xinjiang region provides strong and compelling evidence of the need to condemn China's human rights record at the Commission meeting underway in Geneva, said T. Kumar, Asia director for the U.S. section of Amnesty International.

The violations reported in Xinjiang, compounded by the severe repression long documented in other areas of China and in Tibet, should shame into action memnbers of the commission who have not yet supported the resolution. We take particular note of those who are ready to go to war in the former Yugoslavia, but lack the courage to challenge China, she said.

Kumar was referring to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bombing campaign against Yugoslavia to force an end to human rights abuses against the mostly Muslim Albanian population in Kosovo.

China, which vehemently protested the NATO operation, was concerned that it could set a dangerous precedent with respect to the treatment of its own minorities who, like the Albanian Kosovars, were concentrated in one particular area, in this case called the Uighur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang (XUAR).

The region covers nearly 17 percent of the Chinese mainland's total area and borders on a number of Asian countries - including Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Russia - that China viewed as potential sources of instability.

Uighurs, a Turkic people, accounted for more than 90 percent of the XUAR's population when the Communist government took power in Beijing in 1949. But a steady influx of ethnic Chinese has altered the demographic balance, according to the report.

Chinese statistics in 1997 declared that Uighurs made up 47 percent of the XUAR population, ethnic Chinese 42 percent, and Kazakhs and other minorities seven percent of the region's 17-some million people.

According to foreign experts, however, Chinese have outnumbered Uighurs since around 1980, and the Chinese influx has accelerated in recent years - due in part to rising unemployment elsewhere in China as a result of Beijing's economic reforms.

The indigenous population has felt increasingly marginalized in what they regard as their ancestral land, the report said.

The decade that began with China's open door policy of the late 1970's saw some easing of Beijing's grip on the strategic region. Mosques were re-opened, and new ones built; Uighurs were permitted to travel abroad; and curbs on Muslim clergy were eased.

Liberalization came to an abrupt end in the late 1980's, however, amid rising fears that the government, already under challenge from a pro-democracy movement in major Chinese cities, was losing control of the country.

Those fears were reinforced, according to the Amnesty report, when as many as 50 people were killed in protests and rioting near Kashgar in the XUAR in April 1990.

Compounding the situation, was the enforcement of China's birth- control policy in the XUAR. Local officials exerted pressure on Uighur couples to limit the number of their children to two or one. This led to violent incidents, including attacks on birth- control offices.

Since then, ethnic tension has continued to simmer, occasionally breaking out in spontaneous demonstrations, riots and even fatal bombings in the capital, Urumqi.

The government has responded with increased repression against what it calls national separatists, terrorists and religious extremists. The conflict has grown steadily worse since 1996, the report said.

Amnesty has documented some 210 death sentences and 190 exeuctions - mostly of Uighurs convicted of subversive or terrorist activities - in the XUAR since January 1997.

It also found that thousands of people - including many who fit Amnesty's definition of political prisoners or prisoners of conscience - have been arbitrarily detained over the past few years.

Some were sentenced to lengthy prison terms after unfair trials; others have been held without charge for months or even years, according to Amnesty.

The report details the cases of 200 political prisoners and prisoners of conscience arrested during the 1990s and believed to be still detained.

Many of those detained are believed to have been tortured, some with particularly cruel methods that have not been used elsewhere in China, says Amnesty. Such methods include the use of unidentified injections that cause victims to become mentally unbalanced or to lose the ability to speak coherently, and, for male prisoners, the insertion into the penis of horsehairs or wires with small spikes.

The report stresses the difficulty of obtaining comprehensive information about conditions in the province given the lack of access to it by independent human rights monitors and the intimidation to which the victims of abuses and their relatives are subjected by the Chinese authorities.

These abuses may only be the tip of the iceberg, Kumar said.

(Inter Press Service)