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‘We haven’t fulfilled the promise of Never Again’ – Uyghur activist says

By James Moules

Jan 26, 2022

A PROMINENT Uyghur activist has criticised the decision of numerous countries not to fully boycott the the Beijing Winter Olympics next month to stand up for human rights – just weeks following an independent tribunal’s ruling that the China is committing genocide against Turkic minorities.

UK director of the World Uyghur Congress Rahima Mahmut, who has lived in the UK since the 2000s, has long fought to raise awareness for the repression her people have faced in China.

Since 2017, reports of mass incarceration of mostly Muslim ethnic minority in the province of Xinjiang have been widely documented – with as many as one million Uyghurs being arbitrarily detained in camps. There have also been reports of torture, forced labour and forced sterilisation.

The Chinese government continually denies any human rights abuses and insists that the camps are educational facilities forming part of a counter-extremism programme.

But many Uyghurs who escaped the region have described Xinjiang’s descent into a repressive police state.

Rahima herself lost contact with her family in China in 2017 – the year the mass-incarceration programme is reported to have begun – and still does not know what happened to them.

She said: “We still don’t have any communication with our families. There are people in the diaspora who I have spoken to who have no information about their sisters and brothers and what happened to them.

The Chinese government maintains a tight grip on what information gets out of Xinjiang, with many obstacles in place that hinder journalists and investigators from finding out the full story.

Many of the details that gets out of the region come from the handful Uyghurs who escape from the camps and have shared their stories with the world.

“There are some people who do know,” Rahima added. “For example, the president of the World Uyghur Congress Dolkun Isa learned last year that his younger brother was given a life prison sentence.

“I know several others who had family members in the camps but then later were given very lengthy prison sentences.”

Reports suggest that Uyghurs in China are often sentenced to prison on vague and arbitrary charges relating to ‘extremism’ or ‘separatism’ for as little as day-to-day practice of the Islamic faith.

“Many hoped that after these mass arrests that started in 2017 that it would end quite soon,” Rahima said. “They thought they were innocent and eventually the government will understand that they made a mistake and would release them.

“Unfortunately, all these people received very lengthy prison sentences and we know many intellectuals, writers, teachers and doctors have all now received these sentences, transporting them from the so-called ‘re-education camps’ to actual prisons.”

The Chinese Embassy in London was contacted for comment.

China’s rule in Xinjiang

Xinjiang, known to many Uyghurs as East Turkestan, is China’s largest and westernmost province.

Most of China’s Uyghurs live in this area, and official Chinese government figures suggest they account for around half of the region’s population.

Even before 2017, repression of the Uyghurs was far from unheard of. The infamous Ghulja Massacre took place in 1997, in which China violently cracked down on protests in the wake of the execution of 30 Uyghur independence activists.

The mass-internment programme in Xinjiang was overseen by Chen Quanguo, the province’s Communist Party Secretary between August 2016 and December 2021.

Party Secretary is the de facto most powerful position in Chinese provinces, and Chen held the role in Tibet prior to his move to Xinjiang – which also reportedly saw greater repression under his watch.

However, while Chen has now been moved from Xinjiang, Rahima did not express optimism that his successor Ma Xingrui will be any kinder to the Uyghurs.

“This is a political game. The person who replaced him is another hardliner – he’s very well known for his very strong support for Xi Jinping’s policy.

“We believe he could be even worse than Chen Quanguo, and we know Chen Quanguo is a monster.”

She also believes that the orders for the persecution of her people comes right from the top of China’s government. In November 2021, leaked documents known as the Xinjiang Papers suggested that statements by President Xi were linked to the crackdown.

“Obviously, Chen wouldn’t have done what he did if he didn’t know he had the approval of Xi Jinping,” she said. “He achieved exactly what he set out to do – to turn the region into a police state.

“There are no blind spots, everything is tracked and surveilled. There is no freedom for people, especially Uyghurs, whether they are in their own homes, in camps or in prisons.”

Beijing Olympics controversy

The international spotlight is always upon the nation with hosting rights to the Olympic Games, but ahead of the Beijing winter games, China has found itself under even greater scrutiny.

Human rights groups – including the World Uyghur Congress – have called for an international boycott due to documented human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.

However, while several nations including the United States and the United Kingdom have announced a diplomatic boycott of the games, a full international athletic boycott failed to materialise.

“We called for a full boycott or removal of hosting rights from Beijing to elsewhere,” Rahima said. “We were not successful. I think the IOC has really failed the Uyghur people, Tibetans and Hong Kongers.

“A diplomatic boycott is the least that can happen. In history, people will be remembered for giving the opportunity for Xi Jinping to spread his propaganda.”

“How can you celebrate in this country when you know there are millions of people suffering behind bars?”

– Rahima Mahmut

The International Olympics Committee (IOC) defended the hosting decision, saying they want the games to remain politically neutral.

A spokesperson told Redaction Report: “The Olympic Games are the only event that brings the entire world together in peaceful competition.

“They are the most powerful symbol of unity in all our diversity that the world knows. In our fragile world, the power of sport to bring the whole world together, despite all the existing differences, gives us all hope for a better future. “Given the diverse participation in the Olympic Games, the IOC must remain neutral on all global political issues.”

However, Rahima suggested further steps should have been taken than a diplomatic boycott.

“It’s still not enough,” she said. “The Winter Olympics should not have been happening in Beijing all together.”

“Everything that sport stands for is unity and happiness of all. It’s a celebration. How can you celebrate in this country when you know there are millions of people suffering behind bars?

“It’s really shameful. It’s really painful for us to see the world so inactive about this. We haven’t fulfilled the promise of Never Again.”

Uyghur Tribunal ruling

In December 2021, an independent tribunal based in London found that China was committing genocide against the Uyghur people.

Led by Sir Geoffrey Nice, who was a lead prosecutor in the trial of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević, the tribunal heard evidence from dozens of witnesses.

Rahima said: “According to many lawyers the finding was actually very conservative – it was very factual and very careful.”

The tribunal’s finding of genocide was based upon reports of population control measures in Xinjiang, including forced abortions and sterilisations.

The Chinese government rejected the findings of the tribunal, calling it a “pseudo tribunal.”

The governments and parliaments of several nations, including the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, have also issued statements and motions recognising China’s treatment of Uyghurs as genocide.

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