Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

CHINA: New Laws to Crack Down on Uyghurs

April Sain-Ley-Berry

BEIJING, Oct 27 2011 (IPS) - China is contemplating new legislation to define terrorism more precisely, raising fears that the government is using the so-called ‘war on terror’ to crack down on Uyghur separatists in the country’s restive Muslim region of Xinjiang.

Beijing has laid the blame for a string of past violent uprisings in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, an arid and impoverished area in China’s far north-west, on organised terrorist groups, claiming that China faces a serious threat from fanatical Muslims in the region.

Overseas Uyghur independence groups, however, argue that such allegations are merely a justification for an increasingly tight state grip over the region.

The anti-terrorism bill is being considered by China’s top legislator, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), state media reported this week. Xinhua News Agency, the state’s official mouthpiece, stated that the bill is “expected to pave the way for further crackdowns on terrorism by defining terrorist acts and organisations.”

According to the legislation, terror watch lists will be released by the Ministry of Public Security. The ministry will also have the capacity to freeze the assets of terrorists and terror groups.

Two previous lists of terrorists and terrorist organisations were released by the Ministry of Public Security in 2003 and 2008, all of which were connected to the Uyghur independence movement.

Uyghur independence groups blame outbursts of violence – such as the 2009 Uyghur riots in which at least 197 people, mostly Han Chinese, died – on mounting economic and social frustration from a Turkic- speaking ethnic minority group that has become disenfranchised by Han settlers moving to the area.

China, they say, must take the blame for the violent uprisings and protests which are a byproduct of the one party state’s cultural and religious suppression.

“Since 9/11, the Chinese authorities used the Global War on Terror as a convenient cover to justify its brutal crackdown in East Turkestan (the name separatists give to calls for an independent state in the region),” Alim Seytoff, director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), a human rights research organisation, told IPS in an email interview.

“China is always quick to jump into conclusion with regard to any violent incidence in East Turkestan as an act of terrorism by Uyghurs trained overseas or sent by overseas Uyghur groups, which is always a fabrication.”

China is considering new anti-terrorism legislation for two reasons, Seytoff said. “One is to justify and step up its heavy handed repression of the Uyghur people; second is to show the West that China is a country ‘ruled by law’, even though such laws, as noble as they seem, are ignored in most cases, such as China’s Constitution and China’s Regional Ethnic Autonomy Laws.”

Professor Li Wei, director of the Centre for Counterterrorism Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing, however, welcomes the bill.

“China, like other countries, is facing a terrorism threat. (This bill) is very important as indicates that China is continuously improving its legislation process for anti-terrorism. It has laid a foundation for fighting against terrorism according to law. It’s very necessary. There is a large possibility that this bill will be passed at the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress,” Li tells IPS.

“This law does not specifically point to a person or an area. It does not matter if terrorism is found in the Xinjiang region or in other areas: as long as it is a terrorist activity defined by law it is within our striking target.

“China is fighting against terror attacks. But Western countries blame China for cracking down on activists under the name of ‘anti-terrorism’, which is wrong,” he adds.

News on the anti-terrorism bill follows reports last month by state media that four Uyghur men are to be executed for their roles in the most recent Han-Uyghur clashes this July that left 32 dead.

According to the state-run Xinjiang website four men were sentenced to death, and another two to 19 years imprisonment, for “forming and participating in a terrorist organisation, the illegal manufacture of explosives, premeditated homicide, arson, and several other related crimes.”

In the first attack on Jul. 18, a group of Uyghurs stormed a police station in the southern city Hotan. On a separate disturbance on Jul. 30 and 31, Uyghurs attacked civilians with knives and explosives in the city Kashgar. Both cases led to fatalities.

China originally suggested that the attacks were a result of organised terror, with the assailants trained overseas in Pakistan or elsewhere.

However, in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Hou Hanmin, spokeswoman for the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, admitted that there was no obvious evidence of links to Pakistan or other international terrorist centres. “These people are local, and the weapons they used are homemade. We can’t be certain there were any ties with the outside.”

“We cannot deny that there are violent incidents in Xinjiang: it’s about where we think that violence comes from,’ Nick Holdstock, author of The Tree That Bleeds: A Uighur town on the edge, an investigation into the imposition of martial law following the 1997 protests in the border town Yining, tells IPS.

“We often get the government talking about the East Turkestan Islamic movement and their references to some kind of shadowy organisation based in Pakistan or elsewhere in central Asia. But the evidence for these groups a) existing and b) been responsible is patchy to say the least.”

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