House China panel turns focus to plight of Uyghurs

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Two women who experienced life in Chinese “reeducation” camps for Uyghurs told lawmakers Thursday of lives under imprisonment and surveillance, rape and torture as a special House committee focused on countering China shined a light on human rights abuses in the country.

Qelbinur Sidik, a member of China's ethnic Uzbek minority who was forced to teach Chinese in separate detention facilities for Uyghur men and women, told lawmakers of male Uyghur detainees held chained and shackled in cells so tiny they had to crawl out when authorities summoned them. “They were called by numbers for interrogations. And then you would hear horrible screaming sounds from torture,” she said.

Innocent female Uyghur detainees were held by the thousands, heads shaved, in gray uniforms, Sidik said. Guards tortured the women by electric shocks and by gang rape, sometimes combining both.

Reeducation camps intended to drain the Uyghur inmates of their language, religious beliefs and customs forced men and women into “11 hours of brainwashing lessons on a daily basis,” testified Gulbahar Haitiwaji, a Uyghur who spent more than two years in two reeducation camps and police stations.

“Before eating, we have to praise them, say that we are grateful ... for China's Communist Party and we are grateful for (President) Xi Jinping,” Haitiwaji said. “And after, to finish eating, we have to praise them again.”

Accused of “disorder” and detained with 30 to 40 people in a cell meant for nine, the Uyghur woman said, she and other female detainees were chained to their beds for 20 days at one point.

Detention left her gaunt. Freed and sent to France thanks to a pressure campaign by her family there in 2019, she was given more food by Chinese authorities before her release, so her appearance would not speak of her mistreatment.

In parting, Chinese officials warned Haitiwaji that “whatever I had witnessed in the concentration camp I should not talk about it,” she said. “If I do, they will retaliate against my family back home.”

The U.S. and many other governments, the United Nations, and human rights groups accuse China of sweeping a million or more people from its Uyghur community and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups into detention camps, where many have said they were tortured, sexually assaulted, and forced to abandon their language and religion. China denies the accusations, which are based on evidence including interviews with survivors and photos and satellite images from Uyghur's home province of Xinjiang, a major hub for factories and farms in far western China.

The accusations also include draconian birth control policies, all-encompassing restrictions on people’s movement and forced labor.

“For a long time, some U.S. politicians have repeatedly used Xinjiang-related issues to stir up rumors and engage in political manipulation under the pretext of human rights, in an attempt to tarnish China’s image and curb China’s development,” said Liu Pengyu, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington.

The Chinese government's actions in Xinjiang were about “countering violence, terrorism, radicalization and separatism,” the embassy spokesman insisted.

The early focus on the plight of Uyghurs by the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party is designed to show the Chinese government's true nature, said Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, the committee's Republican chairman.

“They are the first-hand witnesses to the systemic, unimaginable brutality, witnesses to the attempted elimination of a people, a culture, a civilization,” Gallagher said Thursday.

Between 1 million to 2 million members of China’s Uyghur minority have been held in mass internment centers, said Adrian Zenz, a researcher on the Xinjiang camps at the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. More exact estimates are not possible, given China’s concealment, Zenz said.

Expert witnesses praised U.S. actions, including passage of a bill on forced labor and the levying of penalties on companies shown to be using the forced labor of Uyghurs. They denounced businesses and investors still profiting from suspect supply chains and possibly complicit Chinese enterprises there.

Nury Turkel, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and a Uyghur-American, said crimes against humanity cannot be treated merely as an area of disagreement or an irritant in a bilateral relationship. “Genocide is defined as an international crime for a reason,” Turkel said. “Confronting is not an option," it's a necessity, he said.

Chinese technology is enabling and facilitating total control and collective punishment of vulnerable populations, Turkel said.

And Naomi Kikoler, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, which is affiliated with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, urged the U.S. to start working with allies in a more comprehensive way to confront China on the abuses in Xinjiang.

“The United States alone cannot prevent these crimes,” Kikoler said. “We must work with other governments, Uyghur civil society and the private sector to develop a swift, coordinated and global strategy to protect the Uyghur community. Thus far no such strategy exists.”

The hearing comes following Chinese President Xi's trip to Russia to show support for President Vladimir Putin, underscoring just how badly U.S. relations with China have deteriorated.

“What we're seeing here is increasingly a de facto alliance against America and our allies to try and undercut our interests,” Gallagher said.

The formation of the special China committee this year was a top priority of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., but close to 150 Democrats also voted for the committee’s creation, and its work has been unusually bipartisan so far.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, the ranking Democrat, said more needs to be done to protect the Uyghurs and the new committee can help lead the way. “Make no mistake, CCP leaders are absolutely listening to us closely this evening,” he said, adding: “Let's make sure the CCP hears us loud and clear. Their genocide must end.”

Haitiwaji, the ethnic Uyghur woman testifying before the committee, said she is speaking out because she feels an obligation to speak for those still languishing in detention centers. She called on lawmakers to follow the example of Canada, which has adopted a policy of accepting 10,000 Uyghur refugees from around the world.

“Please rescue Uyghur and other Turkic refugees, like Canada has done,” she said. “Please stop American companies from continuing to be complicit in surveilling our people and profiting from their labor.”