By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) – China rejected on Monday allegations raised by a U.N. panel that 1 million Uighurs may be held in internment camps in the restive Xinjiang region, but said that some people underwent re-education after being deceived by extremists.
Hu Lianhe, a senior Communist Party official, said authorities in the far western Xinjiang region guarantee citizens freedom of religious belief and protects “normal religious activities”.
China says that Xinjiang faces a serious threat from Islamist militants and separatists who plot attacks and stir up tensions between the mostly Muslim Uighur minority who call the region home and the ethnic Han Chinese majority.
Gay McDougall, a panel member, said on Friday it had received many credible reports that 1 million ethnic Uighurs were held in what resembles a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy, a sort of no rights zone”.
“The argument that 1 million Uighurs are detained in re-education centers is completely untrue,” Hu told the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
“There are no such things as re-education centers.”
Speaking on the second day of the review of China’s record in protecting the rights of its 55 ethnic minorities, Hu accused foreign terrorists and extremists of trying to ignite secessionist forces in Xinjiang, leading to assassinations, arson and poisonings.
He said China had clamped down on such crimes in accordance with the law and did not seek “de-Islamisation” of the region, but added: “Those deceived by religious extremism … shall be assisted by resettlement and education.”
He said China had imprisoned people for grave crimes, while minor criminals were assigned to vocational training and not subject to arbitrary detention or ill-treatment, without giving numbers.
U.N. human rights experts and Uighur activists voiced dismay with the delegation’s comments. The panel will issue its findings on Aug. 30.
“I notice that you didn’t quite deny that these re-education or indoctrination programs don’t take place,” McDougall told the Chinese delegation on Monday, seeking clarification on how many people undergo re-education.
She told Reuters after the review: “We have quite a long way to go in terms of our dialogue with China.”
Panelist Gun Kut described most of the delegation’s answers as “very defensive”, adding: “I’m sure you didn’t come all the way from China to basically say that everything is okay and there is not much to be done.”
Dolkun Isa, president of the exiled World Uighur Congress who attended the session, voiced disappointment.
“They even denied there are re-education camps. This is not a couple of hundred people – it is more than 1 million to 3 million in detention. But the Chinese government just closes its eyes,” he told Reuters.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Alison Williams)