Claims made by China to U.N. member states that the head of a Uyghur exile group is a “terrorist” wanted for criminal activities are “groundless,” his organization said in a statement, suggesting Beijing is seeking to silence criticism of its repressive policies in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
On Aug. 23, the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the U.N. Office at Geneva circulated a Note Verbale to all members of the international body urging them to refrain from meeting with Dolkun Isa, the president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), ahead of his visit to the city for the 42nd session of the Human Rights Council, to be held from Sept. 9-27.
“Dolkun Isa is a notorious anti-China secessionist and terrorist who committed several criminal offenses and conducted violent activities in China,” said the document, a copy of which was provided to RFA’s Uyghur Service by a Geneva-based human rights organization.
“The WUC is an anti-China secessionist organization whose objective is to separate [the] Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region from China,” it continued, calling the group the “political wing of the ‘Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement,’” which is identified as a terrorist organization by the U.N. Security Council.
China’s mission called on all diplomats of U.N. member states to “reject meeting with Dolkun Isa or his associates from the WUC at any venue,” saying that doing so would run “counter to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
On Tuesday, the WUC issued a statement in response to China’s appeal, calling the claims “groundless,” and noting that the Chinese government has not responded to “countless requests” to provide evidence for its allegations.
The group quoted Isa who, speaking from Geneva, said he was unsurprised that China “continues desperately to try to silence mere conversation about their appalling treatment of Uyghurs,” including its vast network of internment camps in the XUAR, where where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.5 million people since April 2017.
“It shows clearly how deeply nervous the Chinese government is about activists speaking about the reality on the ground,” Isa said.
“We have an obligation to continue to speak honestly and transparently about it.”
While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, China this year changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
But reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets suggest that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
WUC said that assertions in China’s letter are part of a bid to undermine the work of activists who have campaigned for years over the abuse of the Uyghur population, as well as to intimidate individuals and groups who aim to protect and promote human rights.
The group called for “an immediate response from the U.N. human rights system.”
Isa has come under attack on several occasions by Chinese authorities seeking to undercut his credibility as a spokesperson for the Uyghur people who has highlighted repression in the XUAR.
In February, INTERPOL confirmed that it had deleted a “Red Notice”—an international wanted person alert—for Isa, who fled China in the mid-1990s, for his involvement in peaceful Uyghur student protests in the late 1980s.
Isa, who was granted refugee status in Germany in 1996 and later gained German citizenship, learned in 1999 that China had issued the Red Notice against him, demanding his arrest and extradition back to China to face charges.
As a result of the alert, Isa said he had faced harassment—including detention and arrest—by authorities in South Korea, India, the U.S., Turkey and Italy while advocating for human rights for the Uyghur people.
In May last year, China’s permanent mission to the U.N. urged the Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations under the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to remove consultative status for Germany-based Society for Threatened Peoples (STP), after the group named Isa as its representative during the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) a month earlier.
The Chinese delegation claimed that Isa had been “participating, inciting and funding separatism and terrorism for years,” adding that while participating in regional dialogues at UNPFII he had indicated that he was “representing WUC instead of STP,” despite only having accreditation as an STP representative.
In response to the request, Ambassador Kelley Currie, the U.S. Representative for Economic and Social Affairs to the U.N., said she was saddened to see the committee “indulging in the Chinese delegation's Islamophobia, in which they conflate the efforts of an individual to advance the religious and human rights of a persecuted minority in China with terrorism, without providing any substantiated evidence.”
On Tuesday, Farida Dief, New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Canada director, called China’s most recent letter to U.N. member states “very concerning,” noting that Beijing has repeatedly framed its repression of Uyghurs in the XUAR as a type of counter-terrorism effort when “that really has nothing to do with the reality on the ground.”
“The Chinese government frames any expression of Muslim or Uyghur identity as a type of extremism and this is deeply problematic,” she said.
“In terms of Dolkun Isa’s case, it is very alarming the lengths to which the Chinese government will go to vilify this individual, to condemn him with no evidence whatsoever, to try to bully other governments from meeting with him, and using the label of terrorism as a way to justify its actions in Xinjiang and its repression of Uyghurs.”
Dief called on members of the Human Rights Council, as well as permanent missions in Geneva, to make collective efforts to raise the issue of human rights abuses in the XUAR, and urged them to ignore China’s threats against meeting with Isa or other representative of the WUC this month.
‘Stain of the century’
Mass incarcerations in the XUAR, as well as other policies seen to violate the rights of Uyghurs and other Muslims, have led to increasing calls by the international community to hold Beijing accountable for its actions in the region.
Last month, at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the internment camps in the XUAR “one of the worst human rights crises of our time” and “truly the stain of the century.”
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence also slammed the camps “where [Uyghurs] endure around-the-clock brainwashing” and survivors have described their experience as “a deliberate attempt by Beijing to strangle Uyghur culture and stamp out the Muslim faith.”
U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback recently told RFA in an interview that countries around the world must speak out on the Uyghur camps, or risk emboldening China and other authoritarian regimes.
The U.S. Congress has also joined in efforts to halt the incarcerations, debating legislation that seeks accountability for China’s harsh crackdown on the Uyghurs. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act would appoint a special State Department coordinator on Xinjiang and require regular reports on the camps, the surveillance network, and the security threats posed by the crackdown.
Reported by Adile Ablet for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.