US praises Kazakhstan over Uighur rights

Uighur men dance after Eid al-Fitr prayers in Kashgar, in China's western Xinjiang region (AFP Photo/GREG BAKER)

Washington (AFP) - The United States on Thursday praised Kazakhstan for not turning back Uighurs fleeing neighboring China, which has rounded up an estimated one million people from the mostly Muslim ethnic group.

David Ranz, a US diplomat in charge of Central Asia, pointed to Kazakhstan as an example as he addressed a symposium in Washington on the mounting human rights concerns in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang.

The United States is "grateful" to Kazakhstan "for resisting Chinese pressure to forcibly return Uyghurs and other members of Muslim minority groups back to China," said Ranz, an acting deputy assistant secretary of state.

"We urge all countries to provide this protection, to allow them access to asylum, and allow these individuals to travel to third countries of their choosing, as Kazakhstan has done," he told the event organized by Uighur rights groups and George Washington University.

Kazakhstan, which has sought warm relations both with China and the United States, has been placed in a difficult position by the rising human rights concerns in Xinjiang.

Roughly 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs live in Xinjiang -- often descendants of Kazakhs who fled Soviet rule and earlier forced conscription at the end of tsarist Russia -- and some have also spoken of being detained.

But Kazakhstan has also been eager to promote itself as a key artery in China's trillion-dollar Belt and Road infrastructure push.

While Kazakhstan has allowed Uighurs to travel onward, last year it refused to grant asylum itself to Sayragul Sauytbay, who provided key testimony in exposing the network of re-education camps in Xinjiang.

Estimates cited by a UN panel say that more than one million Uighurs have been detained, a massive incarceration that the United States has likened to Nazi Germany's concentration camps.

Uighur activists say that ordinary citizens are being pushed to renounce Islam, but China says it is providing vocational training to prevent radicalism.

Despite US praise for Kazakhstan, Washington has been closing its own doors to asylum seekers with President Donald Trump threatening tariffs on Mexico unless it stops the movement of Central Americans fleeing violence.